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.
Housed in a onetime ham processing plant, the Optimist is chef-owner Ford Fry’s third restaurant in Atlanta — just shy of a year old — and some followers say his best yet. All I know on this spring afternoon is that I’m in the company of some fine oysters on the half-shell that need no adornment, save perhaps for the house-made wheat crackers that ride shotgun, and a server whose sparkly top reinforces her enthusiasm. Here’s where “the Hamptons meet the South,” she tells my posse.
Fry, a Houston native, and his executive chef, Adam Evans, who grew up fishing in Alabama and went on to cook in New Orleans, know their subjects, which embrace “the Gulf on up,” says Evans. That means seafood gumbo to represent New Orleans, she-crab soup a la Charleston and lobster rolls, a shout-out to Maine.
That gumbo is properly dark and zesty; the she-crab tastes mostly of cream. Whole Georgia shrimp with “sopping” toast should star in a Tide commercial (it’s messy eating), but the broth of garlic, chilies, butter and lime is one of those that you wish were sold by the jar for enjoying at home. Bite into the shrimp loaf, and you reel in an explosion of crunch and flavor. The fish, including swordfish dipped in duck fat, pick up a smoky accent from their time on the wood grill.
Evans’s interest in Asian notes surfaces here and there. A blackened mahi-mahi sandwich is packed with “vegetable slaw,” pickled vegetables reminiscent of those in a Vietnamese banh mi, and a must among the side dishes is curry-laced fried rice with egg, smoked fish and peanuts, an update on kedgeree.
Fry’s wish to get diners to “feel like they’re on the water” extends to the look of the place, decorated with quiet nautical touches, such as the ship lights near the kitchen and the restrooms that mirror beach pit-stops.
CAKES & ALE
If I roosted in this city, I’d be a regular at Cakes & Ale in Decatur, trumpeted as the Berkeley of Atlanta. No other area restaurant of my acquaintance impressed me on as many levels as this mom and pop launched in 2008 and relocated nearby two years ago by chef Billy Allin and his wife, Kristin.
The reference to Berkeley is no surprise, given the chef’s history as a cook at the lauded Chez Panisse outside San Francisco, where, Allin jokes, he was the restaurant’s “longest standing intern” and where he picked up good shopping habits and a devotion to naturalness.
A prime example of those principles at Cakes & Ale is the flapping-fresh North Carolina trout, cooked in an oak-stoked oven so that the skin crackles with every slice. Beautiful in its simplicity, the fish is filleted at the table, where diners can embellish it with a slathering of mayonnaise enriched with bacon fat. The heat of the fish gently wilts the accompanying salad; its vinaigrette mixes with the centerpiece to become something greater.
There’s more where that came from: an appetizer of fried celery, onion and shrimp that salutes both Italy and the South; sliced leg of lamb supported on a bed of cracked wheat, along with tart yogurt and roasted artichokes and carrots, some of the vegetables dug up from Allin’s half-acre garden; a side of sweet potatoes whipped with spoonfuls of butter and aromatic with cardamom, a trick Allin borrowed from another mentor, Atlanta chef Scott Peacock of Watershed fame.
“I’m inspired by the world,” says Allin, whose aforementioned piccolo frito arrives with a sweet-hot Asian sauce for dipping the fried snack. From the Allins’ bakery next door come desserts you will want to find room for, including a delicate pecan-topped biscuit treated to butterscotch sauce, sauteed apples and a snowy buttermilk sorbet.
Much like the food, the storefront setting is subtle and thoughtful, relying on little more than fresh-cut flowers, a welcoming bar (cocktails are top-shelf) and art that reveals where the owners have lived. Such minimalism is part of their restaurant philosophy, in which food is significant but not the only focus. Says Allin, “I want people to look at everyone and enjoy each other’s company.”