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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review: The Porter, Bookhouse Pub and Bureau raise the bar

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Whatever happened to the word "bar"? Where's the respect for good, old-fashioned bar food? These days, the new generation of business owners do not open bars. They open gastropubs.

The gastropub concept turned up in Atlanta last year with Concentrics' TAP, followed most notably this year by Holeman and Finch, along with a host of other spots. In recent months, three places in particular have garnered a lot of attention: the Porter in Little Five Points, the BookHouse Pub in Poncey-Highland, and the Bureau in the Old Fourth Ward. I wondered what made these places that different from any other bar in town that serves food. How would they compare to say, Atkins Park – arguably the oldest bar in the city?

At the Porter Beer Bar (1156 Euclid Ave., 404-223-0393, www.theporterbeerbar.com), the main difference is the beer. The Porter has around 200 beers, from hop-heavy American microbrews to gueze to Belgian tripels and quadruples, and not one watered-down domestic among them. For beer lovers, the list is a true joy to behold.

So, that covers the "pub" aspect, but what about the "gastro"? The main claim to the Porter's foodie fame is the résumé of its owners. Nick Rutherford and Molly Gunn both worked at Seeger's, the now closed Atlanta temple to haute cuisine. Rutherford went on to make a splash at the Chocolate Bar in Decatur.

Curiously, much of the food at the Porter is standard bar fare – burgers, calamari, hushpuppies. Yet the gourmet roots of the chef are apparent in details, such as the smoked bacon in the hushpuppies and the fuji-apple dipping sauce, as well as in the ambition of some of the dishes. You aren't likely to find brandade made with house-cured salt cod at Atkins Park. But you're certain to find shrimp and grits, or pot roast, or fish and chips, which the Porter also offers. Sadly, many of these dishes fall short – the grits so soupy that the shrimp sink sadly to the bottom of the bowl, a special of lasagna so weighed down by béchamel and cheese it did little for the mouth or stomach but to pad them for more beer. An admirable characteristic in bar food, sure. And perhaps that's all the Porter is aiming for.

The BookHouse Pub (736 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-254-1176, www.thebookhousepub.com), brought to us by the guys who own MJQ Concourse and the Drunken Unicorn, also offers a fantastic beer list and a menu comprised of bar classics mixed in with some higher-reaching fare. Chef Julia LeRoy easily takes us from fried pickles to duck confit. That lusciously oily confit is piled on top of a smear of pumpkin and a thick corn pancake for a beer-friendly, delicious appetizer. The one big misstep I encountered was a chicken and dumplings entree that consisted of boiled, flavorless chicken with balls of mashed potatoes in place of dumplings.

But the real draw here is the atmosphere. Named after the "Twin Peaks" secret society, the Bookhouse Boys, much of the decor is a nod to the bibliophile-lodge aesthetic evoked by the TV show: Carved wooden totem poles, stained glass, and walls lined with books make for a cool and cozy spot to drink.

The Bureau (327 Edgewood Ave., 678-732-0067, www.thebureaubar.com) – owned in part by Anton Uys, who is also a part owner at the Standard on Memorial Drive – has the most gourmet chops of the three spots, and the least success beverage-wise. The beer list is just decent, and the wine list doesn't make up the difference. (When I asked what they had, the waiter replied, "What do you like? Sauvignon Blanc? I don't know where it's from. I'll bring you a taste." He then presented me with a so-so Pinot Grigio.) Food here is far-reaching – Chef Jay Clark's time at Babbo in New York might explain his penchant for experimentation. Often, that sense of adventure pays off. An appetizer of "osso bucco shepherd pie" tops bone marrow and sweetbreads with mashed potato for a super-rich, runny mess of addictive weirdness. Hamhock terrine has thin slices of meaty pig-bits paired with sauce gribiche (made from mustard and egg) and mustard greens.

Clark occasionally takes his penchant for exploration a tad too far. Quail breasts served with grits and "black eyed pea sauce" had the dish swathed in gray mush – pureed black-eyed peas chunky with whole peas as well. The library paste texture did not help.

But his stabs at straightforward dishes often pay off. A hulking lamb shank served with Brussels sprouts was rustic and comforting on a recent wintry evening. Pity they were all out of the Brooklyn chocolate stout to go with it.

One other warning about the Bureau – it ain't cheap. Unlike both the BookHouse Pub and the Porter, entrees here run in the $20-$25 range, although there are some cheaper choices such as a $12 burger and a $16 pasta.

While the gastropub is a British trend, the path it's taken here is more an attempt at elevating American bar food to a higher plane of dining. It's no wonder the results are mixed – some days, I think a burger just wants to be a burger. But for Atlanta's new generation of bar owners, it's heartening to see such an emphasis on food and good beer, and to see them aiming higher.

(Photo by James Camp)

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