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.”