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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Get in Ma Mouth: Ham Bar Edition

HAM-WASTED: The Ham Bar exists at Southern Art in the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead
  • James Camp
  • HAM-WASTED: The Ham Bar exists at Southern Art

Ham. Bar. Are there two words in the English language that, when paired together, better elicit a joint feeling of hunger and curiosity? I think not. “Ham” is unequivocal. Ham is good. It drives that initial pang of hunger. Then “bar” comes in, nonchalantly, begging study, piquing curiosity.

Is it “bar” as in “granola bar” or “candy bar” — meaning a long, rectangular piece of ham, possibly wrapped in plastic? Or is it “bar” as in “a counter or place where beverages, especially liquors, or light meals are served to customers”? And what would that mean, if so? Ham-centric cocktails? Non-fat-grande-soy-lattes with ham garnish? Or, simply, a place with lots and lots of ham.

Luckily for us all, the “ham bar” that exists in Atlanta fits that last description. It is a place with lots and lots of very good ham. And not just ham — but first-rate, artisan, Southern (mostly), country ham. The ham bar of which we speak is at Southern Art, which opened at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead almost a year ago. By all accounts, the ham bar idea sprung from the mad genius of celebri-Southern-chef-entertainer Art Smith, but it’s executive chef Anthony Gray who is tending the bar day to day. And tending it very well.

The ham bar gets prominent placement at Southern Art, set right off the lobby before you reach the hostess stand. It’s ham candy for the eye with the overwhelming number of legs hanging from the ceiling, and ham perfume for the nose with an aura of intoxicating porcine smoky essence floating in the air. The ham bar offerings are also the first thing you see on the menu, fourteen or so Southern hams, listed out by producer, with details like breed (such as “made from six-spotted Berkshire hogs”), age (“400 days”), technique (“Prosciutto-style”) and tasting notes (“salty, sweet soft texture with a fruity finish”) to help guide your selection. It’s both the number and the quality of the goods at the ham bar that is truly mindblowing — you are not likely to find a collection of Southern hams this good anywhere (except maybe special events like the one mentioned here). And that makes choosing all the more difficult.

On a recent visit to Southern Art, I tried a few different hams, both familiar and unfamiliar. There was the Caw Caw Creek from South Carolina, the Olli from Virginia, and the Johnston County Mangalitsa from North Carolina. Average age? About a year and a half.

Most of the hams are $6 for a two-ounce serving, which is enough for several people to get a few slices each. I asked chef Gray to share his favorites, and he mentioned those three I ordered, as well as the Surryano from Virginia, then retreated into the “they all have a special place in my heart” routine that any parent feels obligated to share when asked about their babies. He continued, “Not all hams are made the same, some are smoky, others salty and dry, some can be sweet and have a younger softer texture. You can really taste the difference in each one of the hams so I always suggest to our guest to try more than one.” Sage advice.

Indeed, my trio of hams showed unique flavors and textures, some salty and firm, some practically melting upon touch. The pile of toast and smears of housemade mustards didn’t get touched; the ham was too good all by itself to encumber with bread or condiment. A nice, barrel-aged, bourbon and Fernet Branca cocktail from the nearby Bourbon Bar (Hmmm... Bourbon. Bar.) made for a damn good pairing, though. Get in ma mouth, indeed.

More Ham Bar news: Gray shares that Southern Art is in the process of installing a full meat curing cooler, and will be curing their own hams for release in 2014 (patience child!). Also on the horizon are retail sales from the Ham Bar and daily "lunch box" specials with sandwiches focusing on ham and salami. All the more reason to stop by the bar.

Awesome aside: I found a great tweet while researching this that deserves a virtual re-tweeting:
RT‪@Unchainedfoodie: ‪#FF ‪@ChefArtSmith because he made a HAM BAR a real thing, not just a dream of mine

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Get in Ma Mouth is a look at delicious things around Atlanta. It all started with a fig and mascarpone donut "slider," but knows no bounds other than that of eager hunger - sweet or savory, solid or liquid, homemade or store-bought. Click here for an archive of "Get in Ma Mouth" temptations.

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