Saturday, March 7, 2009

Eating Out: Holeman & Finch

Every so often a place comes around that breaks the mold of the traditional restaurant. While most restaurants operate under a theme of a particular style of cuisine or do the whole “new American” thing under the guise of a sexy d├ęcor, Holeman & Finch eschews all of the norms and favors a more celebratory approach to food. A celebration of meat. Holeman and Finch is the brainchild of the supremely talented Linton Hopkins. Once a stalwart of famed New Orleans haunts like Mr. B’s Bistro and the Grill Room at Windsor Court, Hopkins has made a big name for himself in Atlanta with Restaurant Eugene: one of the city’s premiere fine dining locales.

In 2008, he opened a more casual spot in the same building. Named after his grandfather, Eugene Holeman, Holeman & Finch Public House offers a wide variety of tasty tapas-style dishes that are simple, but oh-so-good. Sharing the stage with the food are is a very decent array of bottled and draft beers, an approachable wine list, and a battery of specialty cocktails designed by award-winning mixologists Greg Best and Andy Minchow (both of Restaurant Eugene and the now-defunct Emeril’s Atlanta). Since the beer, wine, and cocktails are all designed to compliment the food, I guess we can call this place a true gastropub. I’m a little hesitant to brand such a great place with that label, as the term “gastropub” has been abused and misused with such culinary terms like “fusion” and “molecular gastronomy.” But with Hopkins’ vision being overseen by chef Adam Biderman, H&F seems to be striking the right chord with Atlantans.

By definition, a public house was one of the first types of restaurants in existence, dating back several centuries. The public house was a place where people could gather for a meal or a drink after working hours, and where the social class system did not apply. Everyone was treated as an equal. Holeman & Finch has taken a similar approach, as it does not offer reservations. Seating (both in the dining area and in the bar area) is completely on a first-come, first-served basis. The stools in the bar area are very uncomfortable and packed very closely together. One quibble I have with the place is that unless you snag a seat directly at the bar, you might be stuck on the two remaining walls where the plank provided as a table apparatus is only about a foot wide. For an unabashed glutton like myself who gleefully orders multiple dishes, this is not enough room. Even the dining room tables are small. When I took my friend Kate in the fall, we were putting plates on the windowsill to accommodate the lack of space.

Aside from that, the food is usually nothing less than stellar. As this is one of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta, I’ve experienced nearly every dish on the menu, and many are total home runs. A temple of cured meats, H&F not only offers a nice variety of cured hams, salumi, and sausages, but you can also witness the magic before your very eyes, as the meats are proudly hung in a clear cabinet adjacent to their bar and wine rack. In recent months, they have begun to expand on this effort, offering more old-world style charcuterie, such as terrines, galantines, and ballotines. My favorite of these has to be their souse. For the unfamiliar, souse is also known as head cheese. Unlike most head cheese that I’ve eaten, this is not some stiff, gelatinous mass; rather, it is very loose, with delicious bits of meat scattered among bread crumbs, capers, and amazing house-made yellow mustard.

The main section of small plates could essentially be called “The Southerner’s Perfect Bar Snacks.” They offer up classics like deviled eggs 3-ways, a crunchy gentleman (croque monsieur), fried oysters, and griddled hen-of-the-woods mushrooms on polenta. Their farm egg and pancetta carbonara with guitar-cut pasta is possibly the best carbonara I’ve ever had. While incredibly rich, each flavor (cured pork, shallots, black pepper) is very distinct, and I love that the star of the show is the pasta itself. Perfect texture! Another dish that I can’t seem to stop ordering is their chicken liver pate. The pate is rich and creamy, and the Jenny Jack honey/apple cider jelly and green tomato pickles really make it pop. Served with toasted country bread from their nearby bakery, the pate (for me, at least) invokes a memory of spreading butter and jelly on toast as a child. If you’re squeamish about chicken livers, this is a good introduction to them.

Speaking of squeamish, the main reason I adore Holeman & Finch is that they showcase around 5 dishes featuring “parts.” Some have been a nice gateway to parts, such as the pork belly with grits, chow chow, and charred onions; or "the whole duck," featuring duck breast, leg confit, and cracklin'. Others (my favorites) are in the more extreme category. My first dish I ever ordered at H&F was the crispy pig's ears and tails. I hope you all realize that both of these are essentially nothing but cartilage, and take some serious finesse to turn into something edible. They arrived sliced thinly and were very crispy. The sauce was sweet--something akin to a General Tso's sauce; and it was cheekily called "General Lee sauce." Next up came the roasted bone marrow. These were veal femur bones, split lengthwise with a bone saw; then seasoned and roasted. Sometimes the best dishes are steeped in simplicity, as this one arrived with nothing more than a parsley salad and some country bread. Now, I realize some of you are cringing at the thought of eating bone marrow, but come on: I know we've all gotten way too engrossed in eating our BBQ ribs, only to turn the bone lengthwise to suck out that extra flavor. Well, this dish just amplifies the amount and flavor of the delicious marrow, and simply resembles a meat-flavored butter. Sorry, I almost drooled on my computer just then.

My visit this week was prompted by a menu change featuring even more offal. First, I ordered the veal fries, which are the testicles for you non-chefs out there. They were prepared just like schnitzel--cut into 3-inch portions, breaded and pan-fried. No sauce was required, as a little gremolata of orange zest, lemon zest, and parsley provided plenty of contrast in flavor. Feeling a little more hardcore than usual, I decided to order the veal brains grenobloise. This was my first experience with brains as a main component (I've had lamb's brains in ravioli before), so I was curious what to expect. They arrived in a shallow skillet, nicely crisped on the outside. Served with crispy capers, croutons, and a lemon brown butter, the brains were incredibly hot when they arrived. Not only did they arrive hot, they remained hot (almost like tar) down to the last bite. The texture was meaty and tender, pretty typical of other cuts of veal. They had a slight aftertaste that I still can't put my finger on, but it was slightly metallic. I wouldn't have minded that, except that the dish was very heavy on the salt; so it only accentuated the aftertaste. Finally, I ordered my favorite food in the entire world--veal sweetbreads. Sweetbreads are typically the thymus gland, but can also be the pancreas. When cooked properly, they have a taste resembling a really good Chicken McNugget--remember the old ones when they used to have dark meat in them...yeah, I miss those. Anyways, they were served with soft grits, microgreens, hog jowl bacon, and brown butter. The first time I ever had this dish, it nearly knocked me on the floor; but it's been slightly disappointing since then. I think that in their first attempt, they paired it with cooked greens, which provided a subtle sweet and acidic quality. The food is so rich here, that it really needs an acid to help if from falling flat. Even a drop or two of good vinegar would elevate this already-good food to other-worldly.

But the bottom line here is that this is probably my favorite place to eat in Atlanta. Chefs all over the city come here to enjoy the food that we all love--food that just doesn't feel like "restaurant food." Bring a friend, bring an appetite, and order multiple items. And be adventurous--you won't regret it.

Don't worry, I'll talk about the burger another time.

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