Instant classic 

Shaun's exudes the timeless charm of a neighborhood American bistro

It seems to me that Atlanta, ever the boomtown, exults newness above all else. It's a strange paradox for a city whose main charm is actually its vintage houses and old Southern neighborhoods. The skyscrapers of Midtown and Buckhead are impressive, but Atlanta's authenticity lies in the fact that there are very few major cities in the country with our variety of beautiful, affordable enclaves and communities.

For the most part though, residents of these neighborhoods have had to drive a ways to get to the city's best dining. And when they got there, the restaurants had very little to do with Atlanta's true source of charm.

I love all kinds of restaurants, but after living here for a few months, sometimes I just want to shout "Enough!" Enough with the high-concept, big-money, hugely impersonal barns of dining. Do I sound like a broken record? Sorry. But where are the small restaurants that feel like a person, not a marketing committee, is behind them? Where are the places in buildings on streets in neighborhoods, rather than in new developments or in swanky high-rises? They do exist here, but in small numbers, and very few of them are where our great chefs end up. Watershed, Pura Vida and Sotto Sotto are exceptions. And now Shaun Doty has stepped up to the stove, leaving glam projects such as Table 1280 behind for the more modest pleasures of a small, manageable, neighborhood spot with his name on the door. Really, it's what every honest chef should aspire to, and I applaud him.

Because there is no architectural trick or million-inch plasma TV that can match the charm of the high ceilings and old windows of a vintage building that sits on the street of a Victorian neighborhood. The Johnson Studio, in one of its more modest efforts, has converted the old Inman Park Patio space into a subdued but lovely group of rooms with an elegantly old-fashioned bar and sage-green walls. A huge, communal farm table takes up the middle of the main dining room. This place is a classic American bistro, and exudes Old-World charm.

In the weeks following the opening, getting a seat was a bit of a problem, and waiting an hour for a reserved table was not uncommon. But things seem to have calmed down considerably, and the atmosphere is now pleasingly low-key. Service can still sometimes be less than solid, but there's nothing unassured about Doty's menu. It's a work of quiet beauty, with very little pomp, but enough surprises and skill on display to make this much more than comfort food.

The appetizer that has me daydreaming like a giddy schoolgirl is the chopped liver East Village-style. It's basically chicken liver folded into egg salad and set atop toast, but there is a generous, creamy texture and the seductive smokiness of bacon fat throughout that achieves a perfect balance of nostalgia and adventure. Baby watercress tops it off, and at this young stage in the green's life it possesses a slight and tender perfume.

Doty moves blithely between dishes such as this and more adventurous flavors such as the strong almond essence and pine-nut foam that embolden his butternut-squash ravioli. And then back to a classic, lovely beef tartar paired with a parsley and Parmesan salad that is the height of elegant simplicity.

And this is truly what makes Shaun's stand out -- clean, simple, classic food made with a deft touch. The food matches the decor. On a recent evening, I had the best piece of salmon I've eaten since arriving in the city, sitting on a bed of arugula, cooked perfectly rare, and complemented by cipolini onions and crumbled egg. The dish had none of the song-and-dance that so many chefs feel the need to impose, which only distracts from the flavor and satisfaction.

The same goes for the chicken liver fettuccine in marsala sauce, another dish I'll be craving on winter nights for its rich, deep flavor and soothing heft. Or the wagu beef burger, a burger with all the rich, mineral flavor that gets lost so often when you grind your meat.

The shrimp and grits, served with a poached egg and tender Berkshire pork, needs salt and is served in a ridiculously silly, huge glass bowl. Go for brunch and you'll find your oatmeal at the bottom of the same giant bowl. Whatever. Doty can serve his food in whichever contraption he pleases, but it's a strange note of pretension in this atmosphere of gracious restraint.

Service certainly lacks pretension, and is of the friendly, capable variety, but I sense they are overwhelmed with sections that are too large -- all the more money for them, and truly I don't mind pouring my own wine and having to ask for a new fork, but one of these days I'd like to see service in this town that matches the prices we pay.

But Shaun's is actually very reasonable, with most entrees running in the $18-$24 range. The wine list is made up of interesting, affordable wines. I do hope that Doty, who is known for moving from project to project faster than a speeding saute cook, relaxes into the role of chef/owner and sticks this one out. Perhaps he exults newness as much as his hometown does. But Shaun's deserves to be an old favorite, years down the line.


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