Believe it or not, there was a time when "modern Southern fine dining" was not a well-worn marketing ploy for half the restaurants in town. In fact, there was a time when the idea was somewhat novel.
When South City Kitchen opened in 1993, the idea — of taking Southern staples, dressing them up, adding a splash of Continental influence, and placing a white tablecloth under them — was kind of revolutionary. South City wasn't totally alone in its melding of upscale and down home, but nostalgia was king and it was difficult to find Southern food that looked forward rather than back.
Apart from the genre, South City Kitchen also helped launch a restaurant group. Fifth Group Restaurants grew out of South City's success, and now runs some of the city's best eateries and one of its best catering companies. It also launched the career of one of Atlanta's best chefs, 4th & Swift's Jay Swift, who ran South City's kitchen from 1997 to 2005.
So, now that everyone in town aims for a similar cuisine, how does South City Kitchen rank? Now that modern upscale Southern is all we see, does the original still hold weight?
In many ways, it absolutely does. The restaurant, tucked away on Crescent Avenue between 13th and 14th streets, embodies a kind of grown-up comfort. The bi-level dining room and spacious patio settle just left of generic and just right of stiff, all warm light and black and wood accents. The bar invites dining, faced as it is by an "exhibition kitchen," where cooks spin and float like boxers over flames and plates. The fact that the décor has barely changed since opening gives an idea of how modern and exciting it must have seemed 18 years ago.
Service, from the crisp host to the über-professional waiters, is almost too good. How can service be too good? Fifth Group has become corporate enough to be constantly wrapped up in something other than food — join the loyalty program, donate to the charity of the month. I know that at its heart, service is an elaborate sales pitch, but I prefer for it to be a smidge less obvious. The waiters here push certain dishes, talk a great game about anything you ask (wine included), and leave you feeling taken care of and a tad hustled.
Chef Chip Ulbrich now oversees the food and also runs the kitchen at South City Kitchen Vinings. A mix of classic Southern staples and more modern cooking spans a menu that's versatile and pleasingly unpredictable.
The waiters will tell you that the fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes are the restaurant's signature dishes, and I fear that the popularity of these three undermines the quality available elsewhere on the menu. The fried chicken, served with collards and mashed potatoes, is perfectly acceptable, not transcendent (the skin could be crispier, the fry more bracing) but juicy and comforting all the same. But the shrimp and grits are overwhelmed with heavy-handed Creole seasoning contained in a thick sauce that suffers from a complete lack of elegance. The fried green tomatoes, served with goat cheese and red pepper coulis, collapse under heavy breading and goat cheese smoosh, and feel as though they could do with an update in plating, weight and flavor.
When the kitchen is less encumbered by the things tourists expect, and much of South City's business comes from tourists, more interesting food emerges. Julienned roasted beets and pickled carrots are featured in a salad, all crunchy vinegary sweet with a creamy counterpoint provided by sheep's milk feta. An entrée of pork shank with parsnip and celery root purée is a study in contrasting textures, the pork melting and crispy at its edges, the purée silken, and an apple salad accompaniment providing a satisfying fruity chomp.
But even when the kitchen is given free range, there can be odd outcomes. An appetizer of sweetbreads served with sunchokes and satsuma (a type of mandarin orange) sounds fantastic. But the dish is just downright disjointed, the fried sweetbreads too heavy, the sunchokes sliced and roasted and kind of sweaty, the entire entity a head-scratching mess. Chicken livers over creamed corn are covered in slivers of what look like onions but are actually pork fat. I'm all for the decadence of livers, the sproing of fat, and the sweet richness of corn, but together it's just too much. The combination needs crunch or tang or freshness, some kind of foil to the debauchery.
Dishes such as Georgia trout with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and bacon represent the middle ground — a tad outdated, a tad heavy-handed, but fresh and tasty all the same. The plate of P's appetizer presents a sharp, delicious pimento cheese in a jar alongside pâté that needs work — a smidge of grit, a lack of depth — and pickles that are house-made but don't taste it.
South City Kitchen achieves a lot of what it sets out to — to be a crowd-pleasing, elegant ambassador for the region's cuisine. But as the city around it has become a hotbed for upscale Southern cuisine, the original has started to feel outdated. The restaurant could take a lesson from its own original playbook and step away from the pull of nostalgia.
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