Remember the middle class? From the early '70s through the '90s, you didn't have to spend a week's pay to dine at a fancy restaurant. There was the original fancy-pants Pleasant Peasant in Midtown and its next-door sister, Mick's, which served inexpensive but high-quality diner food made from scratch. In such venues, there really was something affordable for everyone.
Drew Ihrig remembers those times quite well. He worked for the Peasant chain over 10 years, mostly as executive chef at Mick's. In 2002 he left the company to start Endive Catering and has now opened Endive Publik House. The restaurant, open only Thursday through Saturday, occupies the same brick building as the catering operation.
"My idea," Ihrig told me in a phone conversation, "is to provide people an escape from the disappointing. It seems like everything is difficult now — just calling a utility company, for example. I want people to have a place they can forget life's constant problems and walk away feeling they paid a lot less than they expected to."
The low prices won't be the first thing you notice about Endive. The building is an eccentric break from the usual in town. Constructed in the '50s, it sits on leafy Mecaslin Street in Loring Heights, a neighborhood of bungalows between Peachtree Street and Northside Drive, starting at Brookwood Station and stretching toward Atlantic Station. Inconspicuous, the former photography studio really does feel like a gateway to a gentler time.
The interior is not dramatic. The main dining room features high-backed, subtly upholstered banquettes that provide intimate seating — notice the church pews when you walk in — as well as more open tables. A bar stretches along one wall and there's a private dining room. The space has long played host to special events catered by Ihrig.
The most conspicuous unique feature is the acoustics. You can actually converse here without the din that characterizes most warehouse-style renovations around town. The music, mainly alternative jazz, isn't blaring; it's smooth and sexy. The terrific staff isn't hoarse from yelling tableside.
The food, true to Ihrig's experience at the Peasant restaurants, is well-prepared, luscious, but not challenging. Ihrig's dream is sweet and so is much of his food. For example, chuck roast with Korean spices doesn't offer any kind of spicy sting, instead highlighting those sweet notes. Two doughy Asian-style buns allow you to soak up some of the thick gravy, studded with a few veggies. I expected, as with most hybrid Korean-American food around town, to get a zap of kimchi. But I knew my companions would avoid anything that caused their palates to tingle.
Ihrig is open about this. His extensive catering menu does include more adventurous flavors, but he noted that the hosts of private parties choose their own menu. "We have a lot of weddings," he said by example, "and it's common for two or more cultures to be represented. Then the food can be more challenging to the average American. But it's true that I play it safe in the restaurant, usually going the middle road, with a bit of spice but not an amount anyone would find overpowering."
It's not surprising, given Ihrig's work as a caterer, that the menu stresses small plates of appetizers, salads, and side dishes, some of which work quite well as starters, such as a bowl of roasted butternut squash with a savory Gruyère gratin. Fried green tomatoes, sliced thin, have the expected tartness, spiked with a drizzle of slightly sweet roasted bell pepper sauce and dotted with some goat cheese. A California roll is perfectly assembled, featuring sparkling smoked salmon, along with crab, avocado, cucumber, and (a bit too much) cream cheese.
Typically, I dislike chicken tenders. Ihrig departs from the usual by frying them in a coating of crushed corn flakes. They're crunchy and chickeny (as opposed to the usual cardboardy), served with fries and a sweet, grainy honey-mustard. Sweetness asserts itself too in miniature crab cakes — there's lots of crab — over sweet-potato nettles. Ditto for a crackly little pizza topped with smoked duck, fig jam, caramelized onions, and contrasting blue cheese. All of these starters are $7 or less.
I've only tried one entrée besides the Korean chuck roast — pork tenderloin redolent of heady smoked paprika served with roasted apples and a peach sauce. The play of sweetness in this dish is particularly compelling. I haven't encountered much paprika in years and I'd forgotten how stimulating it is when used with bravado. People tend to be stingy with it, so its full flavor rarely comes forward.
The chuck roast and tenderloin are only $12, but you can hit $30 and beyond with fried lobster tails, seared sea bass, and beef tenderloin. Yep, more sweet notes grace the lobster and sea bass.
All that sweetness shouldn't keep you from dessert. Go for the sampler of four, which change regularly. I've worked my piggy way through crème brûlée flavored with key limes, gooey coconut cream, poached peaches with shortbread, and hazelnut-dark chocolate cake with a raspberry drizzle. The plate is only $6 and feeds two easily, perhaps as many as four. The anorexic will run screaming from the room.
How to explain these almost shockingly low prices? Ihrig admits his locally sourced menu is "underpriced" and says, not surprisingly, that much of the cost is covered by his successful catering operation. "I want to create a utopia," he says. And what could be sweeter than that?
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