A few days ago someone turned to me and began, “I bet you get asked this all the time….”
I knew exactly what was coming next.
“So, what’s your favorite restaurant?”
I do get asked this question often, and I never have a great answer. I love Bacchanalia, but that’s more a birthday and anniversary kind of restaurant. Kyma is great, but it has a certain high-gloss ambiance that doesn’t necessarily match my standard wardrobe or attitude. I have a bunch of Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese joints I really like. When I impetuously spend more money than I should on dinner, that usually means sushi.
Usually, though, I will say Cakes & Ale or Pura Vida Tapas — the two restaurants that my wife and I like to steal away to when we can go out for a nice dinner that won’t necessarily mean a three-digit bill. They are both small, personable, chef-run and have menus that change often. We know that we can walk into either place, peruse the menu and get that happy-happy feeling of wanting to order everything.
As I was answering the question, a third restaurant came to mind. Bocado, on Atlanta’s west side, elicits in me the same reaction. I think its co-owner, Todd Ginsberg, is the best under-the-radar chef in Atlanta.
Like Cakes & Ale’s Billy Allin and Pura Vida’s Hector Santiago, Ginsberg is a hands-on chef who pops into the dining room in his kitchen whites, often hand delivering a plate. Like them, he has a great gift for conceptualizing dishes — small plates, entrees, sandwiches — that have uncommon pitch and integrity. Each dish tells a flavor story.
The salad above ($7) is jewel-like, but also very, very interesting. Ginsberg resists sharpening this already-bright collective of ingredients with too much salt or acid. He wants your tongue to tease out the restrained, toasty musk of cumin and let it make the bridge between the sweet batons of carrot and the creamy half moons of avocado.
Though Ginsberg, the former chef at Trois, is cooking in neighborhood-bistro mode these days, he still brings European training and experience to his food. It can be remarkably finessed.
This moist fillet of Carolina flounder ($19) sports a golden egg batter (called francese, or “French-style” in Italian) that imparts a softening flavor as well as a lacy rim of micro-crunch — so nice against that brassy saffron bath and those sweet spring vegetables. Each little wedge of artichoke heart is a treasure — cooked to that pleasing angular softness of a canned artichoke but with a wholly different flavor. The fennel and carrots follow suit — sharp-edged, more tender than crisp, and absolutely maxxing out on flavor.
At other meals, I’ve found plenty more that impresses me with Ginsberg’s cooking. He makes wonderful soups in which each ingredient pops with distinction. His rich dishes never seem excessive. His portions are always on the mark. He has an instinctive sense of how to soften or sharpen flavors.
The food aside, I think Bocado has some feng shui issues. The valet takes your car by a locked front door, then directs you to a side door. The bar is too high to dine comfortably at. The setting sun streaks the minimalist room oddly. The HVAC lurches on loudly from time to time, and you may drop your fork in response. But the back patio is now open, and it feels like a pleasant place to dine.
And wherever you sit, I suspect the food won’t disappoint.