The emergence of upscale Southern cooking in Atlanta has been one of the city's most welcome trends. Finally, the food of the region we're in is the food we're celebrating.
As with any trend, there are downsides to ubiquity. In cooking, the term "organic" should refer to more than just the exclusion of chemicals in growing practices. Atlanta's best Southern cooks came to the style organically – this was the food they grew up eating, the food they love, the food of their heritages. The Scott Peacocks and Linton Hopkins of this world didn't decide to use Southern ingredients and cook Southern dishes because they saw it as the next big thing. They did it because when they let their souls speak through cooking, their souls spoke with a Southern accent.
The Feed Store in College Park has had a Southern theme since it opened in 2003. Nothing could seem more organic – the building has a truly Southern history (as an actual feed store owned by the current proprietor's grandmother) and resides on College Park's classically Southern Main Street. Its decor is pleasing but slightly schizophrenic – part original exposed brick, part geometric wonderland that resembles an '80s outfit. Over the years, the restaurant has employed many chefs, including Top Flr's Mike Schorn, and has had a wildly uneven reputation depending on who was running the kitchen. Since June of 2007, chef Peter Golaszewski has been at the helm, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Golaszewski first gained my attention as the chef at the Epicurean, where he produced an elegant menu of classic, restrained continental dishes. Before then, he served as the chef de partie at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, following a string of high-end restaurant jobs in the Midwest. His fine-dining roots had a lovely trickle-down effect at the Epicurean, where he was able to translate grand dishes into simple, everyday meals.
At the Feed Store, Golaszewski cooks what he calls "a Northerner's perspective of Southern food." He's originally from Detroit. The idea of a Northerner attempting Southern cuisine doesn't bother me any more than an American chef immersing himself in classic French technique. Much thought, perhaps too much, has gone into giving the Feed Store's menu a Southern pedigree, and in many cases ingredients are impeccably fresh and hail from local farms. The restaurant can't be accused of Southern bandwagon-jumping, but Golaszewski's cooking can feel forced.
Fried green tomatoes are served with a pimento cheese baked in its ramekin for a soupy effect, as well as Berkshire ham "relish" (which had the taste and appearance of tangy pork rillettes). The stacked tomatoes have a nice balance of flesh to breading, and not too much grease, but spread on some melty orange cheese and some pork fat and you might go deaf from the sound of your screaming arteries. The dish needs a shot of freshness, and fast. It's a pity, because the pork on its own is delicately balanced, and would be lovely on bread with some pickled element to cut through the fat. Golaszewski's expertise shows up here, but it appears confused.
The puree of butter bean soup was overly vinegary and lacked freshness – in fact, I had a hard time detecting any butter bean flavor. Instead, dark green swampy strangeness swam with sweet "candied" bacon bits. The chilled cucumber soup fared better, with buttermilk undertones, but I could have done without the extra vinegar imparted by the pickled shrimp.
The simpler the dish, the better it tasted. One of the most successful things I tried was a salmon fillet over local squash. No bells or whistles, just fresh fish with fresh veggies. A few items needed a little paring back and they would have been perfect. Golaszewski's version of shrimp and grits showcased fresh, expertly cooked shrimp over overwrought grits, infused with tomato and goat cheese.
Desserts proved to be the highlight of every meal I had at the Feed Store, whether it was a perfectly sweet/tart mango-and-rhubarb cobbler, or the creamy pleasure of strawberry ice cream with fresh figs.
On the other hand, the wine list is a combination of hugely marked-up bottles, such as a $31 Ecco Domani pinot grigio (yes, the kind you can buy for about $8 in the supermarket) and a small selection of higher-priced American reds.
I believe Golaszewski is a talented chef, but I don't think Southern cooking is his forte, at least not yet. On my last visit to the Feed Store, I tried a pea risotto, topped with oven-roasted tomatoes and sautéed squash – local ingredients, Continental pedigree. I was reminded of a similar dish he cooked at the Epicurean, and wished there was more food at the Feed Store that seemed as if it came about organically.
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