It’s been five years since I was last in Atlanta, and in that time, the city’s culinary scene has grown much more flavorful. One sign is the growing number of local chefs and restaurants to make the semifinalists list for this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards, the Oscars of the culinary world.
But beyond that is the growth and increasing diversity of the city. Drive down Buford Highway and you can shop Asian supermarkets that astound with their variety and freshness. Head over to Howell Mill Road, where Bacchanalia continues to reign as the city’s finest dining establishment, and you’ll find the market Star Provisions, which is filled with plenty of gourmet items, including a pungent array of imported cheeses and charcuterie. Since I left a week ago, I’ve learned that the DeKalb Farmers Market is expanding into a facility that will eventually cover 700,000 square feet of space, and all of it devoted to the freshest foods.
My friends Bill and Laurie live in the suburb of Decatur, where everything they might want is in walking distance of their home. That includes groceries, restaurants of all ethnic stripes, bars, bakeries, breweries, butchers, a twice-weekly farmers market, you name it. So, this being a vacation for Bill as well as myself, we could head out to Leon’s for a hand-crafted cocktail and some swellegant, as Cole Porter would say, snacks of radishes atop buttered pumpernickel, before heading on to Victory a few blocks away for another hand-crafted cocktail. Even closer to their place was the Kimball House, which had some of the finest oysters on the half shell that I’ve had in years and, yes, the best hand-crafted cocktails we sipped. And we never had to get into the car to visit all of these places. Plus, walking in the cold has to be considered some form of exercise, right?
Also close by is Cakes & Ale, which is quickly gaining a national reputation for chef Billy Allin’s simple yet elegant cuisine: an irresistible North Carolina trout, filleted tableside and served with radish and greens; a firm slab of cobia with buttery fingerling potatoes and practically melted onion; sable fish collar with farro; roasted beets tossed with the supplest citrus; and a salad that married apple, pear and greens in a boiled cider vinaigrette.
There’s nothing on that list you won’t find in a many another restaurant, but Allin manages to take these local foods and make you taste them as if for the very first time. This is nowhere more true than in the combination of sweet beets matched with slivers of tart blood oranges, flavors so vibrant that they didn’t even need the yogurt dressing.
The cakes part of the name can be had after dinner or at the adjoining cafe, which we visited on another occasion to fill up on pastries, cookies and breads from pastry chef David Garcia. The back of the cafe is one of those uncovered brick walls that always add a sense of authenticity to the ambiance; what the owners didn’t know when they cleared off the plaster, though, was that the wall had been painted with an turn-of-the-20th-century advertisement for another bakery, which they chose to keep, enhancing the experience.
Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow was decidedly different, in a very good way. The two-time “Top Chef” contestant has created a space with an almost carnival-like atmosphere that draws from both Chinese dim sum and the Brazilian churrascuria styles of dining. Enter the nondescript dining area with its open kitchen, exposed ceilings and cement floors, and you’ll find a series of carts being wheeled in between long aisles of community-style tables. You may not realize right off, however, that the people pushing the carts are the restaurant’s chefs, six in all, who have prepared the dishes — and it’s up to them to sell you on each of their creations.
This is fun. It brings you into direct contact with your chef, so you can ask any and all the questions you want about the food or the ingredients they used — if you can hear them or be heard above the din that surrounds you, that is. Gunshow is loud, but it’s a lively noise filled with clanking forks and knifes, and it whets your appetite as much as the sight of a fried lobster tail or a bowl of warm banana pudding topped with a a swirl of meringue. The menu changes frequently, depending on what’s freshest and what your chefs want to create. On the night we visited, the menu reflected a global smorgasbord of influences. There were Portuguese pork belly and clams, Floribbean snapper, barbecue quail with “Southern fix’ns,” braised beef short rib with Moroccan flavors, Scandinavian shrimp salad and veal schnitzel with lingonberry. There was even an attempt to create a handmade In-N-Out burger, which appeared as an off-the-menu surprise.
You try what you want and how many servings you want. But don’t wait for seconds. We didn’t see any dish repeated over the course of the evening. Wash it down with a glass from the well-chosen wine list — a fruity, dry French rosé worked well with all of the savory dishes, from fish to beef. Or you could get a cocktail from the drinks cart that is wheeled to your table in the same way the dishes arrive.
No one from San Antonio would mistake the fish taco from Taqueria del Sol for what we have here, and there are no substitutes for a handmade tortilla. So, how did this perfectly average place get on the radar of the James Beard Foundation? Chalk it up as one of the mysteries of the culinary universe. I didn’t give the place a second thought once we left it for Chai Pani across the street. This Indian fusion palace, with its punderful wordplay on Chez Panisse, is a funky delight, decorated in vintage Bollywood posters. We started with okra fries, a seasonal treat that everyone should be serving, and a pair of shrub-based cocktails with their tang cutting through some of the richness of the rest of our order: tomato and cheese uttapam, a type of Indian pizza, and Sloppy Jai, spicy lamb sliders.
Fusion works if you can pull it off. And if you don’t, it can be painful. The folks at Sobban, “a Korean Southern diner,” manage to blend the two cultures successfully, in dishes as fun as a fried kimchi bologna sandwich and some sriracha deviled eggs that were reminiscent of those Jason Dady serves at Umai Mi. So, could we be seeing Korean-Mex as the next progression? Who knows?
Sriracha was used in a milkshake at Pallookavilla Fine Foods, a place known for its double-fried corndogs and shaketails. The fiery sauce was layered thickly between the ice cream and milk, and they balanced each other out to create a fine novelty. Besides, who wouldn’t like going to a place that has a framed, autographed photo of Tura Satana, star of the classic film, “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” hanging in the wall?
Thankfully, the folks at Fox Bros. did not attempt any sort of fusion with their Texas barbecue. Moist, tender brisket and meaty ribs were filled with plenty of smoke, so it should come as no surprise that brothers Jonathan and Justin Fox are originally from San Antonio and have lived in other parts of Texas before moving to Georgia. I felt like I was back on the barbecue trail, and I was happy to be fed in a manner that made me feel right at home.
For breakfast, head to the General Muir, another Beard semifinalist, which offered some amazing salt-cured lox atop a toasted bagel with a schmear of dill horseradish cream cheese. If that’s too early in the day to get fishy, then maybe latkes with applesauce or warm chocolate babka will fill the bill.
Atlanta isn’t the ideal city. Its unemployment rate remains above the national average, and the liveliness of the central city is shadowed by the near-abandonment of some outer suburbs. But there are signs of growth that show its vibrancy and determination, and the pending reintroduction of streetcars should help, especially with tourists and with the ever-increasing number of people relying on public transportation. Within that framework are chefs who are dedicated to using what grows around them. It may not be in the classic Southern style of sweet and fried, but it honors the area’s provender as well as the amazing diversity and cultures of the people who live there. Plus, the restaurants seem to have a clientele ready to be taken along for all sorts of new culinary adventures. That allows the chefs the freedom to get bolder and more creative, prompting more to be tasted. I can hardly wait to taste what they’re doing next.