My friends Brad Lapin and Eric Varner were "underwhelmed." They had joined me and two other friends at Home (111 W. Paces Ferry Road, 404-869-0777). We were reviewing the menu designed by the restaurant's new chef, Richard Blais, and it's a litany of classic comfort food, befitting the name of the restaurant, which is owned by Tom Catherall (and was formerly called Posh).
I've been urging Brad and Eric to try Blais' cuisine for years, but, partly because they've been living mostly in Rome until recently, they've never made it to one of his restaurants. That's not surprising, considering, too, how often Blais has moved around. I'm not going to write his full résumé, but whenever Blais lands someplace, I tell people to go immediately.
"Frankly, I was expecting more," Brad said. He and Eric have watched Blais on the Bravo Network show, "Top Chef," and were excited to finally sample the cooking of Atlanta's outstanding "molecular chef." But there's nothing molecular about this new menu. "Yes, I'm underwhelmed, too," Eric said.
Twenty minutes later both of them were in a state of astonishment, as were the rest of us. It's true that the description of Brad's salad was almost pedestrian: "butter lettuce, green apple, candied walnuts and bleu cheese." What was not communicated was that the lettuce was local, organically grown, seeming almost aglow with pale green light. The blue cheese was the best any of us have ever tasted. The apples and walnuts were, as Brad, a master of overstatement, said, "Explosions! Explosions of flavor!"
Eric was starting with a trio of deviled duck eggs. Duck eggs? Blais later visited the table and explained that someone came by the restaurant with a hundred duck eggs and he had to buy them. Much of what he's using in the daily changing menu is from local producers who stop by with limited quantities to sell. Each egg half was garnished differently – with sweet pickle, with pulled pork, with ripe tomato. Like Brad, Eric went from underwhelmed to overwhelmed in the speed of a single bite.
This food is, it's true, something of a turn away from the molecular cooking Blais has been so well-known for since his short-lived, eponymous restaurant served 31-course meals in the style of Spain's El Bulli. But it's not as though he hasn't cooked more conventionally. Years ago, he made Fishbone – long since closed – the best place for fish in the city with his creative approach and fresh ingredients.
You'll still find the molecular touch here and there, of course. My own lunch starter was pea soup, my favorite dish as a kid, which my mother always served me with cucumber-and-shrimp sandwiches. This was the best version I have ever tasted. The peas were floating in a broth that was bright green, tasting like the essence of peas, so that the peas themselves only intensified the flavor and added texture. And the texture was the molecular touch. The peas had been dipped in liquid nitrogen, giving them a snap before they melted in the mouth. The soup also contained bits of pulled ham hock and was topped with horseradish foam.
Our friend Bryan ordered the crab-cake starter, with a slaw made of Brussels sprouts and homemade mayo, which Brad also ordered when we returned for dinner a few nights later. Both of them raved about the dish – and zealously guarded every morsel. They both also ordered the entree of prime New York strip steak over creamed spinach with Vidalia onion rings and whiskey jus. While Bryan thoroughly enjoyed his lunchtime version, Brad was less impressed with the meat during our evening meal. I agreed that it didn't have much flavor – a lack that was only accented by the intense, slightly bitter flavor of the creamed spinach and the tempuralike texture of the sweet onions.
I'll go ahead and dispatch with my only other problem with the savory food. At our evening meal, I ordered the organic fried chicken – a breast and leg. It had better flavor than Brad's steak, but was rather flat. There was a little iron skillet of creamy mac-n-cheese on the plate. While the menu said a honey vinaigrette flavored the dish, I tasted truffle oil. Whatever, it was delicious. (I should note that Blais was not in the kitchen during our evening meal.)
Our dinner also arrived with vegetables, served family style: collards, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and creamed turnips. All of them were fabulous. There were no fancy effects or surprises, except, again, for flavors so intense they evoke nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the South eating produce from a garden.
Other entrees we sampled at lunch included Brad's Florida black grouper, hit with Key lime butter, served over a salad of local beans. I thought this dish was going to push him over the edge. His only complaint was the size of the portion. The rest of us thought the portions, although appearing small, were generally adequate. Brad has been reading Michael Pollan's new book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, in which he argues that people who consume a diet of local, preferably organic food usually end up eating less. I reminded him of this.
Our friend Todd ordered the veal meatloaf with green beans and a tomato marmalade at lunch. It likewise had powerful flavors. My own lunch entree was delicious but not exactly what I ordered. I selected the grilled short rib with candied beets, citrus salad and horseradish dressing. I received a delicious cube of meat with mashed potatoes but none of the other ingredients. I have no idea.
The standout starter at our evening meal was my little buttermilk pancakes with foie gras "butter" and ripe blueberries. This is pure Blais, a witty wedding of the down-home and the extravagant, with a purely postmodern presentation. A close second was Wayne's warm local mushrooms with grilled toast and a fat, warmed duck egg. Eric's itty bitty oyster "po' boys" were another flavorful bit of wit.
The standout dinner entrees were Wayne's beef brisket pot roast and Eric's lamb with goat-cheese dumplings. You'll have to try them yourself for a full description.
Desserts? They were, I'm sorry to say, a disappointment. Our server told us they were not being made in Blais' kitchen. An apple tart was tasty enough, but a far cry from the quality of the rest of our meals.
Service was perfect. Caleb, Waitron of the Week, is a veteran of Prime, another Catherall restaurant, and has a witty disposition ideally suited to the food he's serving.
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