"Made in house" is a term that may be overused, but there is one place where it truly counts: charcuterie. All over Atlanta, in restaurants spanning cuisines from Italy to France to Latin America, and especially the cuisine of the contemporary South, the "made in house" badge shines brightly on plates of charcuterie. Running an ambitious in-house charcuterie program takes time (with some products curing for well over a year), it takes space (to hang all that meat in the right conditions), and it takes expertise (to craft a product that betters what can be sourced from dedicated outside producers). It's a perfect arena in which to pit some of our city's best chefs against each other ... in a CHARCUTERIE SMACKDOWN! (Sorry, I just got excited there.)
To select our challengers, the most important qualification was that they have a good variety of house-made charcuterie. There are many chefs doing one or two items in-house or relying primarily on outside purveyors, but we decided to focus on restaurants that offer a full charcuterie plate. Four of the five restaurants that made the cut tilt heavily toward a Southern persuasion. After all, curing pork is as Southern as baking biscuits. While Southern chefs are now going way beyond the pig for their charcuterie plates, they also have an arsenal of Southern pickles to pepper the plate with, and those chow-chows and pickled okra can make even salted cod or beef hearts feel close to home.
The rules of Charcuterie Smackdown are ... there are no rules. We do, however, have certain traits we look for in a charcuterie champion. Our champion should have good taste (of course), versatility (a variety of types of charcuterie), good looks (what is more beautiful than a delicately arranged flower of pearly white pork fat?), and marriage potential (the ability to partner nicely with other elements on the plate, notably pickles and mustards). It should be noted that charcuterie plates at any restaurant will likely vary week to week or even day to day, as different terrines or sausages or salumi come and go. So, without further ado, we present our Charcuterie Smackdown contenders, each sporting a smackdown-worthy battle nickname.
Sergeant Slaughter: Abattoir
$20 for a bountiful plate of six selections, plus accompaniments
The first thing you notice about Abattoir's charcuterie plate is that it actually comes on a plate (this is our only contender to ditch the requisite rectangle of wood). Stark white porcelain is the backdrop for a beautiful jumble of colors, textures, and flavors. Tight white curls of lardo edged in herbs and pepper anchor one end of the plate, with equally delicate bright orange slivers of pickled carrot by their side. A lightly torched disk of head cheese sits front and center, surrounded by a jar of pork rillettes, two styles of sausage, dark slices of bresaola, an array of pickles and mustards, and a sprinkling of microgreens. Executive chef Tyler Williams runs a broad and ambitious charcuterie program, with a rotation of 10 or so items all made in-house that he can choose from at any given time to populate the day's plate. Most of these delight with finesse and flavor. The head cheese is delicately spiced with cilantro and lemon grass, then a salty finish, melding perfectly into a chunk of warm baguette. Abattoir's lardo intrigues with floral hints of rosemary, fennel seed, and clove. A country pâté wrapped in pancetta makes beautiful use of the subtle sweetness of caramelized onion and apple purée hiding within the pâté. The lone letdown is the jar of pork shoulder rillettes, suffering from an intentionally strong hit of vinegar acidity. 1170 Howell Mill Road. 404-892-335. www.starprovisions.com.
Captain Beefheart: Empire State South
$25 for a plate for two, five selections plus accompaniments
Executive chef Ryan Smith calls Empire State South's charcuterie program a passion project, and the passion shows through in the adventurous bites on offer. The charcuterie plate here is always five selections from the kitchen, scaling up or down in volume based on how many people intend to partake. An orderly array of meats sits beside a stack of grilled bread, a pile of various pickles, a smear of rich Guinness mustard, and a scoop of pickled mustard seed with raspberry. We are firmly in the South here, but Southern-ness takes shape in many ways. Pork terrine with mushrooms and a pig skin wrapping is earthy times two. Barnyard brilliance resides in a fragrant 16-month cured country ham, sliced thin like prosciutto. A breakfasty ginger sorghum sausage exudes deep notes of sugar and spice and porcine delight. Sharp pickled carrots cut through any fat lingering on your tongue, a piercing counterpoint to all that pork. This plate shows a chef that is pushing to make charcuterie a distinctive and emblematic component of what his restaurant is all about. We hear he's working on beef heart "slim jims," and that sounds exactly right. 999 Peachtree St. 404-541-1105. www.empirestatesouth.com.
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