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.

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