America loves a good oxymoron. "Compassionate conservative" was my favorite of the last 10 years. In the restaurant world, where jumbo shrimp are often on the menu, the oxymoron du jour is "casual is the new fine dining."
What does that mean? On the surface, it's about the ruined economy's shredding of the white-tablecloth world of high-priced dining. Restaurants like the defunct Seeger's and Joël come to mind. But the phrase also refers to the way dining has morphed into popular theater, thanks in large part to food TV. In this way, the phrase has more to do with ambiance than cost.
Two new Atlanta restaurants exhibit the trend: Watershed on Peachtree (1820 Peachtree Road, 404-809-3561, www.watershedrestaurant.com) and the Optimist (914 Howell Mill Road, 404-477-6260, optimistoysterbar.tumblr.com). Both feature casual ambiance and uncomplicated, mainly Southern dishes with superb flavors. Menus change daily.
Interestingly, both restaurants were designed by Smith Hanes. Watershed, located in a condominium building, is warm and woody with flashes of metal. The space emphasizes a 40-seat bar area. The Optimist, opened on the Westside by Ford Fry, is a completely open space typical of the neighborhood, but Hanes managed to bring a witty but glittering fish-camp feel to the seafood spot. Hanes also designed Fry's other restaurants, No. 246 and JCT Kitchen.
Watershed, as every foodie in America knows, became famous under chef Scott Peacock for his brilliant preparation of Southern classics. The restaurant, owned by Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, was then located in Decatur. Peacock left in 2010 after 11 years. Then, Joe Truex, who had closed his own restaurant, Repast, became chef. Not long afterward, Watershed itself closed and now has reopened with the very talented Julia LeRoy joining Truex in the kitchen.
At Repast, Truex and his wife, Mihoko Obunai-Truex, both classically trained, prepared one of the city's most compelling fusion menus. Truex has fully returned to his Louisiana roots and the food is all his own. Fried chicken, the old Watershed favorite, was not even on the menu the night of my visit. Is that a declaration of independence?
Truex's jambalaya may be the city's best. It's made with a dark roux and a small amount of rice without a speck of the usual bright red. What you get is a bowl full of — yes — jumbo shrimp and thick slices of spicy sausage, plus a few crawfish bits.
The ubiquitous pork belly shows up as a starter of bacony strips you wrap Vietnamese-style in lettuce leaves with a hot slaw and some Dijon mustard. There's a kind of weird but tasty schnitzel made of scallops, topped with a few anchovies and a fried quail egg. The schnitzel hides some capers and is surrounded by a classic grebiche sauce that I think binds the flavors together. Pork and olive meatballs are slathered in a startling tomato gravy.
Finish your meal with delectable hot milk cake — basically tres leches with caramel icing and sea salt. Yes, those flavors are rapidly approaching overuse, but go ahead and indulge.
And do carry money. Most entrées here hover around $25, not too bad. But most of the appetizers are well more than $10 each. You'll find about the same entrée prices at the Optimist, with apps clinging to a $10 limit. Hey, casual is the new fine dining. But let's remember that the trend is also accompanied by the popularity of local and sustainable sourcing — and that drives prices up.
I've actually only lunched, and very well, at the Optimist. Two of us dropped $40 including tip, without any alcohol or a visit to the oyster bar. And we had only one appetizer of some gluttony-worthy sea-salted yeast rolls with cane-syrup butter. The high point was chef Adam Evans' take on cioppino, a bowl of shallow tomato broth topped by a huge soft-shell crab that hid clams, corn, and some chunks of potato. The restaurant's oyster po' boy is made with zippy "comeback sauce," a Mississippi favorite that Evans bases on tartar sauce, according to our server.
Do not leave the restaurant without trying dessert. Owner Ford Fry has hired Taria Camerino to head the pastry kitchens at all three of his restaurants. Camerino is most famous recently for her chocolate shop, the Sugar-Coated Radical, which is temporarily closed, pending a move to a new location.
Camerino treated us to a creamy tart topped with shavings of white Venezuelan chocolate, surrounded by a candied peel she made from rescued grapefruits.
The evening emphasis here is wood-roasted fish, with some oddities like Maine sea scallops, oxtail marmalade, brown-butter chicken jus. I want the seared rare tuna, charred octopus, and potato salad with harissa.
These two restaurants are not unique in the trend they represent. The Spence, the new Concentrics restaurant headed by Richard Blais, is pure theater and magical food. Diners basically sit on a kitchen stage. The owners of the Shed at Glenwood are planning to open a second restaurant in Midtown. It will likely take another step toward the new fine dining, too. Meanwhile, let's hope the Republicans casually shower us with money.
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