Ask the people who cook in Atlanta to sum up the post-recession dining scene, and you hear things like this from one of its shining lights: “We’re building confidence,” says Billy Allin, the chef-owner of the destination Cakes & Ale.
Although Atlanta can’t compete with New York, San Francisco, Chicago or Washington, Allin says that his adopted city is no longer trying to “replicate what’s going on somewhere else.”
Todd Ginsberg of the freshly minted General Muir agrees. Restaurateurs are asking anew, “What does this city need right now?” says the chef of what has been billed by an owner as a “secular synagogue.”
Three recent days of eating in and around Atlanta clarified the local sentiment for this diner. I might have come for a taste of the South, but I returned with fresh appreciation for those kitchens that are charting new ground.
Ben and Jennifer Johnson hoped to avoid the usual cliches with their new-in-January breakfast, lunch and dinner destination in Emory Point. Definitely, “Johnson was not a good deli name,” jokes Ben. The couple settled on the General Muir, “which causes people to ask the question: ‘Who’s General Muir?’ ”
A framed 1949 newspaper story on the wall holds the answer: The clip, from the New York Daily News, includes a photograph of a girl viewed from a porthole on a ship transporting refugees from Europe after World War II. The young passenger is revealed to be Jennifer Johnson’s mother, Trudie, who was traveling with her parents, both Holocaust survivors, aboard . . . the General Muir.
The restaurant is thus a tribute to family. One local critic, Christiane Lauterbach, has also hailed the General Muir as “Atlanta’s first serious deli.”
There’s much to support the claim on the menu, executed by New Jersey native Todd Ginsberg. He makes his own pickles, a kaleidoscope of mouth-puckering carrots, cauliflower, beets and cucumbers. A scoop of cognac-spiked, duck-fat-rich chopped chicken liver is served with wedges of tasty pletzel.
Not all the breads are baked in-house, but the bagels — small, crisp, dense, chewy — are. One bagel is not enough for the plate of lox, smoked trout salad and house-cured paprika-dusted sable, and not just because that’s a lot of good fish. “Eat something,” the menu prods like a Jewish mother. Easy advice to follow. Not every nosh is consistently delicious — the pastrami on my visit was a tad dry — but enough is, including the lacy-crisp potato cakes that are a testament to good frying. Brunch is fittingly saluted with a Caraway Mary, a twist on a bloody mary shot through with caraway vodka.
The design summons New York, with a dining room awash in white subway tiles and steel trusses, an industrial look that takes on the air of a brasserie when the lights go down at night. Dinner is when Ginsberg gets to do more of his own food — prune-stuffed gnocchi with oxtail ragu is an early hit — and helps a restaurant that serves three meals a day show its range: on target.
One minute in the Optimist, and a diner can’t help but feel better about life. The host greets you like a pal, hickory smoke perfumes the air, and the sprawling dining room, its broad windows a sponge for daylight, is a snapshot of good cheer. A scan of the menu, meanwhile, gives a hint of something special: lots of fish and seafood in a landlocked city where corporate restaurants dominate the catch.