I'm trying not to gawk too conspicuously at the attractive, flaxen-haired woman circulating between the bar and the kitchen at Feast. But she looks so darned familiar. I remember previously observing the wide-open way she scans a dining room -- with a casual but studied sense of authority. Where have I seen her? Hmm. Affordable neighborhood restaurant, buttery lighting, Decatur ...
Bingo. Less than six months ago, she was expediting in the open kitchen at Wahoo!, the crowd-pleasing community spot on the edge of Oakhurst. But now, Teri Rogers, who has been in and out of the Atlanta restaurant scene since she was part of the Peasant Group in the '70s, has created her own Decatur eatery in a discreet space that was previously Ashton's ice cream shop.
And though I like the 'hoody hum of Wahoo!, Feast has a seductive urbanity that I personally find more magnetizing. Appropriately scruffy brick walls have been adorned with shiny gold drapes at the entrance. Flames quiver and sputter in a wood-burning oven on the opposite end of the room. Someone had a good eye for picking out suave light fixtures that emit the precise wattage to conjure a romantic air. Come winter, this place will be packed with snuggly couples.
Feast is 2 months old and still finding its footing, but Rogers chose a capable crew of servers right out of the gate -- a rare accomplishment. The hostess has warmth and a reserve of patience for kids. If you plant yourself at the bar, the bartenders make astute wine recommendations while furiously mixing drinks. And the servers? They may get thrown off here and there, but nobody I encountered had a bitter edge, or seemed to be orbiting in outer space, or tried to snatch dishes before we were done with them.
The toasty vibe and gracious service have almost a soporific effect on me when it comes to analyzing the food at Feast. I always walk out of the restaurant soulfully sated, and it's not until I sit down to write that I realize a good portion of the menu needs a touch of tweaking here or there.
Take the pizza. Chef Michael Schardan spent time manning the flames at Woodfire Grill, and he constructs a respectable pie. The pizza dough falls more into the flatbread category, so the crust proffers hilly puffs and crunchy crevices. Nice.
Yet I find the four choices for toppings inspipidly safe or simply off-base. A variation with prosciutto and spicy marinara is showered with chopped sage after it is removed from the oven, overpowering all the other flavors and leaving a soapy taste in the mouth. Canned artichokes, roasted peppers and spinach seem a tired trio given the galaxies of creative combinations you can concoct for pizza. I most prefer the classic margherita, but even then I'm tempted to swipe a blob of caramelized onions from another dish to jazz things up a tad.
If the kitchen focuses on only one improvement, though, it should be its frying technique. The calamari was flabby the night I ordered it, as were the battered onions and lemon slices tossed in with it. Most of the fried artichoke hearts crumple into unappealing shards. Mushroom "chips" have a deep, meaty flavor, but they, too, suffer from a droopy texture. Get that oil temperature in the fryer higher, gang.
What to begin a meal with, then? Oven-roasted clams in a citrus-herb broth is a welcome reprieve from omnipresent mussels. (Don't forget to dunk the fluffy house-made bread in the broth.) Caramelized onion soup has just the right amount of chicken stock and cream to temper the jammy quality of the onions. And arugula, Roma tomatoes and wisps of parmesan are tightly attuned by a simple, balanced lemon-pepper vinaigrette.
In reversal of a typical restaurant axiom, entrees outshine the appetizers. And I admire the way they've been organized: Main dishes are surprisingly affordable but truly a la carte. So you can order an honest hunk of seared grouper with caper and preserved lemon sauce as is for $11, but if you want a small portion of garlicky spinach (which you do), it's $4 for a small serving or $7 for a larger portion to share. Jonesing for carbs? Spring for the herb-roasted potatoes.
And get your hooks in the fish. Salmon roasted on a cedar plank is topped with a plucky salsa verde. Mediterranean sun fish (a vague moniker that can include a variety of piscine creatures) roasts in the wood oven stuffed with fresh garlic and rosemary, and comes to the table whole -- head, tail and all. You need to watch out for bones, but the moist flesh has been infused with sunny flavors.
The same garlic-and-olive oil philosophy has been assigned to an approachable rib eye steak bathed in chimichurri. And a thick ol' pork chop is surprisingly juicy, though it needs something saucier than the wad of sage and red onion jam on the side. Right about now's the time to plop the onions on a lingering slice of margherita pizza ... .
Desserts were a woeful low point. A discouraging sampler platter included mealy carrot cake, a too-sweet bread pudding and a mysterious pile of steaming, presumably microwaved, apples that was meant to be apple streusel. Hey, how 'bout some pastry to actually make it a streusel? The one morsel I loved, a sublime lemon-ricotta tart, was replaced recently with lemon cheesecake. Boo. Without tart, bitterness.
The lackadaisical desserts won't drive me away, though. If Rogers can coax her kitchen toward more consistent, carefully prepared food, she might just have a destination restaurant on her hands. Feast already has the essential neighborhood ingredient -- spirit -- in generous abundance.
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