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Southern comfort 

Visits to JCT Kitchen and Cakes & Ale

I've continued to steer a group of friends on occasional Friday nights to good, moderately priced restaurants. This, as I reported earlier, was inspired by joining them one evening at LongHorn Steakhouse and, in disgust, being overwhelmed by an evangelical zeal to convert them to eating real food.

Most recently, we've checked out two popular Southern-themed restaurants — Cakes & Ale in Decatur and JCT Kitchen on the Westside. Both of these restaurants have exciting projects in the works. Cakes & Ale will be moving to a nearby larger space and opening a bakery. JCT Kitchen's managing partner and executive chef Ford Fry is opening a new Italian spot, No. 246, in Decatur with Drew Belline, formerly chef de cuisine at Floataway Café. It is slated to open in early May.

I confess that we visited (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-355-2252) as a second choice last week. After hearing complaints about costs of earlier meals, I suggested we go to Antico Pizza, which was unbearably crowded. So we headed to nearby JCT, were seated promptly and handed menus that caused me to blurt: "I don't recall it being this expensive."

"You always say that," Jay said.

Not. For the most part, entrées at JCT are no more costly than steaks at LongHorn, but the restaurant is doing what most everyone else in town is doing — charging rather high prices, averaging $9 each, for appetizers. But they are very generous portions meant for sharing, obviously.

People who like bacon will be in porky paradise here. In fact, I ordered a trio of sliders stuffed with thick, ridiculously crispy, slow-cooked bacon that reminded me of carnitas. They were topped with a bit of sharp blue cheese and pickled cabbage that added needed zing to such a fat-laden concoction.

The standout was Ryan's bowl of steamed "angry mussels." They were extra plump and brimming with slightly salty flavor. But the best part was the broth, flavored with bacon, onion and serrano chilies, the angry ingredient. The five of us ate so much bread, sopping up the stuff, that several of us couldn't finish our entrées. Dessert was out of the question.

Frank and I both ordered chicken and dumplings. Fry's are a somewhat deconstructed but decorated version, with a perfectly roasted leg quarter, crispy and juicy, set atop a bowl of billowy dumplings stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese. As delicious as it was, my nostalgia-ridden inner child still prefers the classic with stewed chicken and kind-of-chewy, lividly yellow dumplings.

Jay ordered the famous fried chicken but was most amazed by the macaroni and cheese seasoned with — you'll never guess — Benton's bacon! Bobby, our leader, selected pork tenderloin wrapped in — oh my God! — bacon! Ryan, German to the core, ordered a delectable pork sausage "rope" with caramelized onion and fennel. Buttery mashed potatoes were also on his plate. This dish calls me back more than any. So Ryan, who also ordered the mussels, gets the award for best choices. All of these dishes, by the way, were served with uncomplicated vegetables.

The hearty fare at JCT contrasts with somewhat lighter (and, yes, rather pricey) fare at Cakes & Ale (254 W. Ponce de Leon Ave.). When I remember our earlier meal there, one dish — a starter — keeps coming back to me: marinated collard rabe with prosciutto. Chef/owner Billy Allin describes his restaurant as "vegetable driven," and this dish epitomizes that, and it also reflects his genius.

I don't know that I've ever eaten collard rabe before. It's the plant's stalks and flowers, and their flavors seemed to oscillate between collardly intensity and an almost mellow allusion to their source. Allin simmers them until tender and heaps them over slices of prosciutto. Basically, the dish is another example of "decorated deconstruction," a rather gentrified take on the classic Southern dish of collard greens cooked with pork. It also included the peppery vinegar my mother considered essential to eating collards. Hers was full of chopped onions.

For entrées, most of the table chose the same thing: pork saltimbocca (also a deconstructed, open-face take) with buckwheat polenta, collard sprouts and aged balsamic. It must have been very good: I didn't get a single taste. But I was happily preoccupied with my own choice: half a roasted young chicken (poussin) with fregula, carrot purée, carrots with beets and mint yogurt. Honest to God, this was one of the best meals I've had in weeks. The fregula was an especially wonderful touch.

For dessert, I chose Cynthia Wong's legendary phatty cakes. These — you get three — are constructed like Oreos but made with ginger molasses cookies and creamy mascarpone. It's Wong's work that will be featured in the bakery adjoining the restaurant's new location.

Entries on the Cakes & Ale blog indicate that the new location will open in May. (The blog includes photos of the extensive work the remodeling has required.) Diners will be happy to find more space in the new location. It took me three weeks to get a reservation at the present one!

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