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Have You Dined at Ford’s Lately?

Several architects, interior designers, and restaurant conceptualists swivel their heads to look around the room, and a couple of them thoughtfully clear their throats.

Taria Camerino talks new pastries, Sweet Genius, and the future of Sugar-Coated Radical

Taria Camerino, creative director for the pastry programs of Ford Fry’s restaurants and founder of the now-shuttered Sugar-Coated Radical, doesn’t believe in desserts simply tasting good: Instead, she says dining is about the experience. She feels she has “an obligation” to move people, and has been studying diners at No. 246, JCT Kitchen and the Optimist to figure out how to best “engage” them, then rework the dessert menus to better reflect her discoveries. Below, she divulges the sweet details and shares her plans to re-open Sugar-Coated Radical in 2014.

2012 year in review

A handful of hotspots opened, longtime staples closed, and more and more local chefs became reality TV stars. Foodies tried to counter the effects of pork over-indulgence by eating more kale. Bitter-laced cocktails maintained their momentum, and farm-to-table fatigue set in (for the expression and the overload of pimento cheese, anyway; local, seasonal ingredients should be a given in any ambitious restaurant). Food trucks banded together and opened a park—twice. The list goes on and on. Read on for the monthly highlights . . . if for no other reason than to say “remember when.”

The Optimist

Ford Fry has a knack for creating likable, trend-driven restaurants that I've found capable but overly safe. His first, JCT Kitchen & Bar in the Westside Urban Market development, opened in 2007. Its tame versions of shrimp and grits, chicken and dumplings, and deviled eggs draped with ham helped usher in the era of that now-cliched genre, Southern farm-to-table, but they lack gutsy soul.

No. 246—Fry’s snazzy Decatur venture with executive chef Drew Belline—launched mid-2011 when fresh hot spots were a rarity amid the draggy economy. It satisfies its nightly crowds with busy pastas, Neapolitan-style pizzas charred in a wood-burning oven, and other Italian comforts. There, too, I hanker for more gusto, for more reach and spark to the cooking.

Table Talk: White Oak Kitchen opens, Gluten-free fried chicken at Cardamom Hill, and Kessler reviews The Optimist

White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails opens in Downtown Atlanta Who’s thirsty? White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails quietly opened its doors this week and is rocking a giant list of cocktails, among other interesting southern chic, farm-to-table dishes.

Food Chatter: A first glance at the Optimist

A spectacular Atlanta Food & Wine Festival event last week had those who were in attendance speaking in exclamation points about the Optimist, star chef Ford Fry’s latest resto. The sophisticated Southern-style seafood spot has the look, menu, and location to add a new star to Atlanta’s seafood dining profile. The Optimist, named after a small sailing craft, has a Southern seaside theme that sets the perfect tone for the dining experience. Designer Smith Hanes (JCT Kitchen, No. 246, and Watershed on Peachtree) has created a Hampton’s-meets-the-South look that deftly incorporates nautically themed artwork into a space that features soaring ceilings, subway tiled walls, forged metal fixtures, and re-purposed wood elements like the floor-to-ceiling windows separated by wood strips designed to look like lobster traps. Hanes’s take on the beach house bathroom—hand numbered keys—adds another classic touch to the Optimist’s décor. The star-studded pre-opening event, Oceans 6, presented a progressive selection of seafood delights from Southern chefs Norman Van Aken (Florida), Bryan Caswell (Texas), Mike Lata (South Carolina), Dean Max (Florida), and Brandon McGlamery (Florida), along with some artful pairings by Master Sommelier Kathy Morgan (D.C.). It also served as the debut of the Optimist’s top toque, Adam Evans, formerly of JCT Kitchen, whose contribution to the menu was equal to the occasion. The Optimist’s dining menu features a stunning array of sustainable fresh fish and shellfish like Georgia white shrimp, Florida grouper, North Georgia trout, and Virginia clams; all available either fried, grilled, or roasted in a wood burning oven. The adjoining Oyster Bar features a wrap around raw bar in a “fish camp” setting and an outdoor patio. The huge standalone bar’s menu features seafaring libations such as the Sea Shanty, Mother of Pearl, Old Salty Dog, and the Cutty Shark. In addition, there are four draft beers, fifteen by the bottle, and a nicely balanced wine list. The dramatic, 10,000-square-foot space is located at 914 Howell Mill Road, at the headwaters of the Westside’s expanding Howell Mill Road restaurant row, which, until now, has lacked a significant seafood presence. The Optimist is slated to set sail on Monday, May 21. NEWS AND NOTES: Atlanta’s first permanent food truck site, the Atlanta Food Truck Park and Market, has reopened after the permitting problems that forced its abrupt closing were resolved last week. According to various media reports, the closure was a result of the fact that individual trucks needed separate vendor permits in addition to those held by the park. Prompt action by City Councilmember Kwanza Hall and others assisted in the acquisition of the required permits. Brit bad boy chef, Gordon Ramsay’s "Hell’s Kitchen" television show is casting in Atlanta. Slated to release on October 16, star chef Kevin Gillespie’s cookbook, "Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking," is now available for pre-ordering.

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