Friday, September 18, 2009

Eating Out: Cakes & Ale

I was talking with a couple of my fellow Abattoir diners later that week, and we were discussing our mutual disappointment in the place. While I think my criticisms were fair for what they were, I also think that the place was a victim of the hype. Not necessarily by the media, as the AJC review did not get published until nearly a month after our visit. Instead, I think that Abattoir fell victim to meeting the ridiculously high standards set by Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison's other phenomenal restaurants: Bacchanalia, Quinones, and Floataway Cafe. These places help set the bar for outstanding food in Atlanta, and I was left wondering: Was it us who were at fault for having such lofty expectations? Shouldn't a place be allowed to stand on its own merits instead of being compared to other restaurants within the operation, but with different concepts? I know that if I worked at Ecco and someone complained that the place did not have the same feel as South City Kitchen, I might be a little offended because the concepts are completely different. The soul of the organization should still feel similar, but one does not necessarily beget the other. And moreover, as a chef, are my expectations out of reach? Is it possible to be "blown away" any more?

These questions were still fresh in my mind when I decided to venture off of my own beaten path into Decatur to check out Cakes & Ale. As I would learn inside, the place hasn't done any advertising until the past two months. They opened in August of 2008--just in time for the recession! Basically, they've been relying on word of mouth from some incredibly loyal guests and the solid reputation of chef/owner Billy Allin, who built his name locally as longtime sous chef under Scott Peacock at Watershed. But from my experience, all it takes is one meal and you can't help but want to be a repeat guest.

My favorite part about the restaurant is the overall vibe. There's not a bit of pretension in the room, and everyone just seems really happy to be there. I wasn't seated at the bar for five minutes when the guy next to me starts gleefully raving about his burger, then quizzing me on the finer points on how to make a great burger...and he didn't even know I was a chef yet! There are no menus to be passed out; rather a giant chalkboard sits unapologetic in a convenient location for all to see. No hipster decor or that faux-industrial feel that seems to be so popular these days--just a simple, understated dining room. Musical selections--I only heard two: Sam Cooke and the Ramones. It doesn't get much better than that.

I'm probably doing the food a disservice by hyping it as grandiose, because the beauty lies in the simplicity. My plan of attack was to order several appetizers, then gauge if I could gluttonously gorge an entree down my gullet. The first to arrive were the arancini: six little golden brown crispy nuggets of fried risotto. These were extraordinary simply for the fact that they were the first arancini I've ever had without some form of sauce. They were just sprinkled with lemon zest and fennel pollen, which added both a brightness and very subtle sweetness to go along with a delightfully cheesy risotto. A sauce would have completely compromised the nuances of the risotto ball.

After mowing through the arancini at a record pace--looking up only for sips of my brown lager--I started on my second course: an heirloom tomato salad with cucumbers, an avocado puree, sheep's milk feta, sherry vinegar, and olive oil. Only recently have I become passionate about my love for tomatoes, and plates like these are the reasons why. Each component of the plate brought a unique flavor to the party, but their primary purpose was to enhance the tomatoes. The tomatoes themselves were perfectly seasoned and, along with the cucumbers, grown in Allin's home garden. I personally love any dishes with balance, and the tomatoes offered great acid, sweetness, saltiness, and richness, that made for a memorable dish.

Even with the disappointing charcuterie plate at Abattoir in the back of my mind, I wanted to give the Cakes & Ale version a shot without any trepidation. It didn't let me down. All cured in house, this board brought forth a bounty of two types of coppa (dry-cured pork shoulder), sopressata (dry-cured salami), lardo (cured fatback), pork rillette (cooked and blended in its own fat), pickled beets, melon, & ramps, dijon mustard, and crusty bread. Pardon me, but holy crap--that was amazing! The rillette alone was so good, it would make you want to punch someone in the face. Don't ask why you would do such a thing, but the pork would likely inspire such a Tourette's-like reaction that would be easily forgiven, so long as you plied the victim with the same great pork.

My stomach gave me the green-light to proceed with an entree, and after weighing my options (all looked original and very tasty) I succumbed to my cravings and went after the burger. It was very straightforward, and absent of many of the bells & whistles you see on a lot of restaurant burgers these days. It came with cheese (don't ask me to recall which one--white, mild, and nicely melted), sliced tomatoes, and an onion-studded mayonnaise. I later learned that the burger itself was a blend of chuck, brisket, and pork belly. It had great moisture, but I felt it was a touch underseasoned. A bit more salt and pepper, or a little more caramelization on the surface would have made all the difference in the world. Still a very tasty burger, nonetheless. The shoestring fries were crisp and addictive, and I would order these again in a heartbeat.

You know when you eat a big meal, there comes a point when your pleasure sensors shut down, and it almost becomes a challenge to finish whatever it is that you're eating? Well, that about summed up the last few bites of my burger and fries. I finished my beer and applauded myself for cleaning my plate like a good little fat kid, when temptation struck from two directions. I won't go into huge detail on the service, but I felt incredibly welcomed and taken care of throughout the entire meal. A testament to that was illustrated after I had finished going to town on my burger. Billy's wife Kirsten (who had been working the door that night) had sat down beside me and ordered food for herself while I was working on my entree. She ordered two or three small plates, and later determined that she wasn't going to finish her last plate--a potato, leek, and ricotta tart with a beet salad. Instead of boxing it up for herself, she offered it to her bar neighbors to sample, so long as we didn't mind eating after her! Since I almost ordered that particular dish, I made sure to give it a try, and was instantly glad I did. The tart was very reminiscent of a pizza, and the beets were a wonderfully sweet contrast to the rich, earthy tart.

My second temptation hit me when my affable bartender broached the subject of dessert. I could barely move, much less consider eating more. Several items on the dessert menu looked fantastic, especially a brown butter tart with fresh blackberries and ice cream (maybe ginger? creme fraiche--sorry, forgot that one too!). But I cowardly waved my white surrender flag and asked her for my check. Along with the check, she brought a small plate with a small sandwich-like cake: one of the restaurant's signature Phatty Cakes. These little three-bite wonders are two very soft spiced ginger cakes/cookies and a vanilla-mascarpone filling. It's essentially an adult version of the Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie! The standard order of three would have likely put me in the cardiology ward of Emory hospital, but one was the perfect end to a great meal. I really implore you all to check out this little Decatur neighborhood haunt; it's worth the trek.

Eating Out: Abattoir

In the immortal words of George Costanza, "Baby, I'm back!" I would love to apologize for not posting any blogs for over two months, but the world of chefdom has quite often been so hectic, that I haven't had the time or the energy to post a quality review. I don't want to turn into some throwaway four-sentence blog that says, "Yeah, go check out the bahn mi at Lee's Bakery. They're really good." A thorough examination of all of the great (and now, not so great) establishments that I visit is certainly required. And because I've already reviewed a large majority of the truly extraordinary places around town, I will now look to include both the abysmal and the mediocre. Hopefully, we can at least find some humor in those...

My first review since the "sabbatical" was prompted by this week's 5-star review of Abattoir by Meredith Ford Goldman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I've been prone to disagree with her assessments of various restaurants in the past (Anyone remember the grossly generous 4-star review of Home back when Richard Blais was there?), and our thoughts on Atlanta's newest high-profile operation differ greatly.

The occasion of the evening was really special: Executive Chef extraordinaire Chip Ulbrich invited all five of his sous chefs from both SCK Midtown and SCK Vinings, as well as GM Paul Hymel out to dinner one Tuesday night. Having had a very good experience, albeit with limited eating, at Abattoir, I offered that up as a potential dining destination for all of us. Unfortunately, the second time did not live up to expectations. All of us met up at nearby JCT Kitchen for a pre-game beer (and an unrequested free Jell-O shot) before walking across a wooden bridge to the White Provisions building, which houses Abattoir. It's a stunning space on the inside, with a large communal table running down the center of the restaurant, and a spacious patio. We all sat down and eagerly pored over the menu, trying to decide what we should order for the first wave. While all of the chefs have our collective noses buried in the menu, I'm a little amused when I see Paul--the only non-chef--ordering the first round of food for the entire table! Round One included the housemade chicharrones, potted chicken liver & foie gras with armagnac, the wood-grilled bratwurst w/ melted spring onions, and the charcuterie plate. If you've ever had pork rinds, then you've essentially had chicharrones. These were light as air, and left me with this porky flavor that was simply sublime. The potted chicken liver w/ foie gras and armagnac was also tremendous, with this smooth and rich liver puree beneath a layer of earthy and aromatic armagnac jelly. Those were perhaps my two favorite dishes of the evening. The bratwurst had a great garlicky flavor, but was a tad heavy on the fat ratio in the sausage. Also, as was the case with several of the dishes, the portion size (even for one person) was a bit small. Now, I want you to imagine a bunch of ravenous chefs trying to divvy each dish up among seven of us. Even though we were all in street clothes, trying our damndest to be civil and polite at the dinner table, I couldn't help but feel that any one of us might stab the other in the hand with a fork should he try to consume the last bite of a favorite dish. The charcuterie plate was incredibly ho-hum; evident by the fact that I can't remember exactly what was on it. I think there was a lomo of venison, a sopressata or coppa, and I'm positive that there was a pork rillette. Regardless, there was an exceptional plate of homemade bread to help sop up any evidence on the plates.

Chip had selected some very nice wines, and with a well-balanced red and white in front of us, we proceeded to delve into the section of the menu devoted to our beloved offal. The word "abattoir" literally translates to slaughterhouse; and the building that houses Abattoir was once an actual slaughterhouse. With that "pedigree," I had high hopes for this portion of the meal. We opted for two orders of the "crisp veal sweetbreads, capers, & egg yolk" and one order of the "lamb liver fritters with sauce meuniere." The lamb liver fritters arrived adorned with some sort of tomato compote. Whatever it was, it did not resemble any meuniere sauce I've ever seen in my life. For the non-restaurant people out there, a meuniere sauce is basically a riff on a brown butter sauce that incorporates lemon and parsley, and often times worcestershire, vinegar, or pecans. Strangely, a sauce of that nature seemed to envelop the sweetbreads, on which I found little to no presence of capers or egg yolk. These little menu oversights make a place look a little bush-league, but would have been overlooked had the dishes in question blown me out of the water. But they were, to quote Julius Caesar in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1, "Nice. Not thrilling, but nice."

We moved on to the entrees and selected the wood-grilled pork chop with local greens, the lamb tasting with mint salad and jus, a roast squab with Carolina Gold rice, and their burger with fries. I can't describe my disappointment in how unmemorable each of these dishes were. The bright spot of the bunch would have to be the lamb tasting--highlighting a lamb sausage, lamb shoulder, lamb loin, and lamb liver. Each had a nice meaty flavor that was not overly gamey, and all were perfectly cooked. Again, though the circumstances may have been our fault (too many of us), it was difficult to get a complete feel for the food through one or two bites. The pork chop was dry and underseasoned, and the greens were accompanied by some simple diced vegetables that really brought no additional flavor to the party. Coupled with a really weak broth, this was one of the two biggest clunkers of the night. The squab had an okay flavor, but I thought it was overcooked. Some of you chefs may disagree with me, but I'm of the belief that squab should be about medium rare. In any event, the squab came with the advertised rice and a pretty insipid jus. I was trying to pretend it was Chip's squab-bbq jus that ended up on the floor at James Beard House in 2001. Dean, your thoughts?

But no level of disappointment with the three composed entrees could match how upset I was with their sorry offering of a burger. A red flag instantly went up when we ordered the burger medium rare, and the server said that it would take around 20 minutes. What?!? What kind of sorry excuse of a heat source are you using when ground meat takes 20 minutes to reach medium rare? Well, she wasn't kidding about the 20 minutes part, but the burger was almost completely raw on the inside--no structural integrity whatsoever. It was poorly seasoned and because of the way the tomato was cut (fileted), fell apart when I tried to bite into it. The basic mayo & ketchup on the side just seemed like a throwaway--kind of a "You don't care, I don't care" kind of attitude. And don't get me started on the fries. Dry and hard, this only exacerbated my anger toward a sub-par burger.

We soldiered on through desserts--maple-bacon beignets and a fried cherry pie with buttermilk sorbet. The beignets were real winners, as they were just plain donuts drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with bacon. More bacon would have made them a bit more interesting by offering up more of a salty contrast--what we all love about bacon desserts. The pie had a nice crust, and the sweetness of the cherry filling matched nicely with the tartness of the sorbet, which unfortunately, was half melted when it arrived.

Having the former chef of Bacchanalia at the helm makes me want to hold out hope for this place, but being burned by non-seasonal items justifies my pessimism. I hope this place can turn the corner, because it has the potential to be better than perennial favorite Holeman & Finch. But the first major experience was definitely strike one.

Afterword: As we walked back across the bridge, we decided to stop at JCT for a post-meal beer. Oddly enough, we were given (again, unrequested) another Jell-O shot. I find it incredibly ironic that despite having high school and college experiences that often revolved around heavy drinking, my first Jell-O shots took place in a casual fine dining Southern restaurant that rivals my own restaurant in concept.