"I don't know if you know," the waitress says conspiratorially to the table next to ours, "but our chef is Richard Blais from 'Top Chef'."
"I know," the woman replies excitedly. "That's why we're here!"
Lest you think I was rudely eavesdropping, let me explain the situation. It was early in the week and in the evening – 5:45 p.m., the only time I could snag a reservation. My party and the couple next to us were the only customers in the restaurant, and we were seated at two small tables so close together, we were basically on a double date. Such arrangements are easily ignored in a crowded room, but in an empty one, the only choices are discomfort or new friends. We made new friends. The couple was from Florida and had come to Atlanta to visit relatives and eat at Home. Or more specifically, to eat Richard Blais' cooking.
"He's not here is he?" our Floridian friend asked.
"No, he's just had a baby," the server explained. "He might stop by, you never know, but he's not working in the kitchen tonight."
Blais never stopped by during any of my visits to Home – he hasn't been physically present recently. (I'm not complaining – a new baby is as good a reason as any.) Whether or not he's present in the cooking is another matter.
Tom Catherall, the owner of Home as well as the other restaurants in the Here To Serve group, is definitely present here. He's been in the dining room and his influence on Blais' food is unmistakable. Much has been made of Blais' decision to work for Catherall in the elegant Buckhead building that once housed Seeger's and still houses the extravagant kitchen that Seeger built. It seemed like a strange match: The chef who's been mainly painted as a mad scientist working for the chef who forged an empire with one eye on the status quo and the other on the trend du jour.
But Catherall was smart to snag Blais smack dab in the middle of his 15 minutes of well-deserved fame. What isn't as clear is the smarts of the task given to Blais – to fit his cooking neatly into a Southern theme. There again, Catherall's recognized a couple of trends (Southern food, farm-to-table cooking) and seized the opportunity. But Blais is a cook who, despite being known for his gadgetry, is best when cooking far beyond trends.
There are tastes of the brilliant, playful Blais we've known in the past, most recently at Element in Midtown and on TV, cooking outlandish dishes such as white-chocolate-wasabi sauce or tofu marinated in beef fat. That chef shows up at Home, but the glimpses are brief. Seared foie gras served with buttermilk pancakes and pickled blackberries is the dish I expect to be served for breakfast on my first morning in heaven. Each component refers with a wink back to another – the foie gras is both the bacon and the butter to the pancakes, the berries both the sweet breakfast treat to the pancake and the acid pickle used in classic foie gras dishes.
An appetizer of raw scamp (a firm, white-fleshed fish) topped with crispy chicken skin speaks to Blais' understanding of contrasts in flavor and texture.
He showcases his creativity within the Southern theme in the Jenga-like stack of fried green tomatoes with ranch ice cream and the beautiful whisper of cauliflower in the mac-n-cheese. But at other times you can see the struggle and forced nature of the proposition. Chicken-fried duck leg was both dry and oily. The okra in a succotash under striped bass had a nice crunch, but imparted its okra slime so thoroughly that the experience was too visceral. Chicken-fried sweetbreads with sausage gravy needed just a touch of acid to stand up to all that richness.
An appetizer of bone marrow topped with shredded short rib meat was delicious except for the portion size – the half bone contained barely a teaspoon of marrow.
It's a lovely idea to mimic the trappings of a true Sunday meal at someone's Southern home. The biscuits served in place of bread are marvels of the fluffy form, with a piquant pepper jelly to accompany. But I found the shared "farm-to-table" vegetables lacking. Whipped potatoes rang true, especially when eaten with my entree of fresh bacon over collards and topped with the sweetest of summer peaches. But a gray bowl of green beans, mushrooms and lifeless hunks of celery was the kind of dish that might turn a toddler off veggies for good.
At the end of our cramped, early evening meal, my husband asked, "What would you think of this place if Blais had nothing to do with it? What if you were given this service [slow] with this wine list [boring] with this food [on that night, disappointing]?" I couldn't give him an answer – Blais both heightened my expectations and made me want to forgive the anguish the letdown caused. When it comes to this chef, we don't want well-themed, competently executed food. The man is an artist – liquid nitrogen or not, I don't want to see what some baron has commissioned; I want to see what he can do with just his muse to guide him.
When I spoke to Blais the morning after his "Top Chef" defeat, he talked about wanting to cook his "own food." In the same breath, though, he spoke of the lessons Home is teaching him, specifically how important it is to fill up a restaurant. "Home is booked every night," he said. "That's got to matter, right?" What he seemed to be missing is that, yes, Home is packed. But people are there for one reason: Richard Blais. To say that this is the best Blais can do would be a crime. "I want to get to that point when I'm doing my own food. And I would love it to happen in Atlanta. I want it to happen in Atlanta," Blais said. He's not the only one.
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