Everywhere I go, in real life or on the Internet, I hear a crescendo of whining about the deterioration of Atlanta's dining scene. It's not just the departure of star chefs Guenter Seeger, Richard Blais and Sotohiro Kosugi (who is rumored to be returning to our city). People cite the profusion of corporate restaurants -- Seeger's has been overtaken and rechristened Posh by Tom Catherall -- and the decline of chef-owned boutique spots.
I've been reviewing too long -- more than 20 years -- to get too panicky about this, although I think there's some validity to the complaints. In fact, I would add stagnation of menus to the litany. Some of my favorite restaurants seem to have lost their creative edge.
It's a mistake, I think, to decontextualize the downturn from the city's history and general state. I doubt most of the city's transient residents realize how bereft our dining scene was 25 to 30 years ago. It was budding corporations then -- Buckhead Life and Bob Amick's Peasant Group -- that caused the city to jump a light year toward contemporary dining. So, considering our history, it's something of an oversimplification to blame corporatization of the industry.
One obvious difference is that real estate costs inside the Perimeter have made operating a boutique restaurant prohibitively expensive. Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Midtown was cheap -- and that's where Amick and his partners opened the original Pleasant Peasant.
If the city is in a culinary lull that recalls those days just before the opening of yet-to-be-corporate Pano's and Paul's and the Peasant, there's another similarity. Back in the mid-'70s when I was editor of CL's now-defunct competitor the Atlanta Gazette, we featured the work of Nathalie Dupree, who was then head of the cooking school at the also-defunct Rich's Department Store. Nathalie, who went on to write a zillion cookbooks and do two zillion cooking shows, was an advocate of so-called New Southern cooking (which was also under development by the undercredited Elizabeth Terry in Savannah).
And, as I believe CL Food Editor Besha Rodell was first to observe, our city -- amid this stagnation -- is also undergoing a renaissance of Southern cooking. I would guess that one of the reasons our dining scene is so cyclical is that, unlike Dallas' or Santa Fe's or San Francisco's, it has never taken its own heritage very seriously. There have been exceptions, such as Scott Peacock at the casual Horseradish Grill and Watershed. Now, Restaurant Eugene and Quinones have elevated our native cuisine to the level of fine dining. Nathalie's passion has finally really caught on.
The latest Southern restaurant to debut is JCT Kitchen and Bar (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-355-2252). This is in Westside Urban Market, which also hosts Bacchanalia and Quinones. The specific location, in the rear of the development, has not been kind to earlier tenants, Commune and Sampan, both of which featured beautiful, kinky decors and good food.
The decor here, according to the website, is "inspired by the California wine country with an East Coast interpretation." OK. It still reminds me of my mother's den when I was a kid -- light paneling, a pine floor and big, clunky cloth lampshades. It's more like a Southern tearoom -- remember the Magnolia Tea Room at Rich's? -- than a winery tasting room in Sonoma County.
The food, under the direction of executive chef and managing partner Ford Fry, formerly of Eatzi's, is mainly good. He calls his cuisine "Southern farmstead cooking." I guess "farmstead" compares with the more commonly used "plantation cooking" by avoiding the latter's connotations. In any case, the restaurant is a blend of New Southern and traditional cooking.
An example of an almost parodic New Orleans dish is "crispy oysters Rockefeller." You get succulent, fried oysters sitting atop little mounds of creamed spinach with bits of chopped bacon (which make an appearance in many dishes). I loved the dish, in part because it reminded me of a day in my impoverished 20s when I went from bar to bar in Augusta in futile search of a glass of absinthe to make the original version, made with parsley, not spinach!
A soup of white beans pureed to velvety smoothness, dotted with more of the bacon, and topped with airy croutons was pure comfort. Generally, though, the starters here are not as tempting as the entrees. Others include truffle-Parmesan fries, white-bean bruschetta, a shrimp cocktail and a wedge of iceberg lettuce.
The restaurant, which is open for lunch and dinner, serves classic fried chicken but I was curious about the chicken and dumplings, a favorite dish I don't get to eat nearly often enough. Chef Fry's version is another parody, this time Frenchified. It's chicken braised in red wine with mushrooms and pearl onions like coq-au-vin and served with crispy gnocchi. It's a far cry from any farmstead version outside Provence, but I'm not complaining.
Wayne ordered short ribs cooked pot roast-style with potatoes and carrots. This dish is everywhere these days and Fry has wisely not gilded this particular lily. It's straightforward, yummy and makes you want to pat your tummy.
Desserts were a bit of a letdown. Warm chocolate cake was good but you can't resist negatively comparing it with Scott Peacock's utterly perfect version. Gingerbread pudding with lemon curd would have been better were it uniformly heated. Actually, heating was, oddly, a problem with several dishes. My soup was cool in spots, too hot in others. The short ribs were not hot enough.
Service at the restaurant, which was open only a few weeks when I visited, was good. I'll be interested to hear readers' comments about the place. I'd also like to have comments about the trend back to our Southern heritage.
I've received more recommendations for good gyro following a request from a reader just home from Greece:
Scott wrote this: "The best gyro outside of Greece can be had at Christo's Pizza in Marietta (2900 Delk Road, 770-952-1965). It's quite a haul for us intowners but less trouble than flying to Athens."
From Grayson: "The Grecian Wrap (855 Virginia Ave. in Hapeville) has the best gyros I have ever eaten. The gyros with an order of their Greek potatoes and some extra sauce are simply wonderful. You need to go very early or later in the afternoon to get in the joint."...
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