Good seafood restaurants recount the story of a coastline, of the fish that live on one side of it and the people on the other. It is usually a simple story of food and culture told though an iconic dish: An oyster po’ boy, a grilled whole sea bream with lemon and olive oil, bouillabaisse, Lowcountry boil, sliced raw tuna, a bright red lobster served with a claw cracker and a silly plastic bib.
But the times are too complicated for simple stories. Fresh seafood is available in any town with an airport, tastes are as fluid as the seven seas, and the global seafood industry is working overtime to put a fish in every pot. The world has become a mess of crashing fish populations, of polluting aquafarms and of the very real specter of extinction of particularly delicious species.
We can thank Zach Kell and Seth Hendricks for opening their Virginia-Highland restaurant Goin’ Coastal with the right story for today.
The restaurant, which is a satellite of their popular Canton restaurant by the same name, serves only North American seafood, both farmed and wild, from sustainable sources. It’s a message that those of us who hanker for fresh fish in landlocked Atlanta need to hear.
But Goin’ Coastal also tells a second story — that of “Southern-inspired dishes with a focus on fresh fish” — to give the cooking some context. Here’s where the gumbo gets a little murky.
It’s a little bit Gulf seafood shack, a little bit uptown bistro and a whole lot of unconvincing Lowcountry-style cookery. Kell’s kitchen is at its best when it keeps things simple, but it gets into trouble quickly.
That means you should pay close attention to the oversized chalkboards when you walk through the handsome brick dining room. On any given weeknight you’ll find five or six daily items. You can count on a few more choices on weekends, but don’t go looking for a gracious plenty.
A hefty slab of amberjack ($23) gets the kind of hot, hot broil that keeps the juices inside, and it is a pleasure to eat with nothing more than its dusting of seasoning and a squeeze of lemon. It arrives on an aluminum plate in true Florida coast style, with your choice of two sides. I can’t imagine choosing any better than crunchy roasted potatoes and fresh cole slaw — the creamy kind that knows how to play second fiddle with no raisins, excess sugar or celery seeds.
Apalachicola oysters ($1.25 each) are reliably on the menu most days, and they come perfectly shucked and icy cold. I’ve most enjoyed Goin’ Coastal sitting in front of a platter of these oysters in one of the deep booths in the rear of the restaurant. The simple food and the warm design — weathered timber beams and black-and-white portraits of fishermen popping against the red brick walls — conspire for a moment of pleasure.
But the menu promises more sophisticated cooking than this. Alas, the kitchen has a hard time delivering balanced flavors.
Tomato and arugula salad ($6) puckers the palate with pure vinegar, while a generous bowlful of mussels ($12) wallow in a salty broth flavored with so much andouille sausage and Tabasco sauce that we were blotting them off. The Coastal scallops ($22) bring six wiggly, watery, smallish specimens broiled in a tarragon butter sauce that did not show this licorice-scented herb’s good side.
Weirdest of all are the kitchen’s forays into the Lowcountry cooking of Charleston and its environs. I’m not sure this stuff would make a splash on Broad Street. The she crab soup ($6) is neither the good kind that pits sweet crab against ocean funk nor the trashy-but-tasty kind that cuts heavy cream with the sweet/alcoholic nip of sherry. This one is thick, pink, beady with oil, strangely flavorless and plumbed with little bits of something.
A dish called Sullivan’s Island shrimp ($18) rings a mound of white rice with springy shrimp in a pasty curried tomato sauce. It reminded me a little of shrimp korma and a little of the shrimp creole my mother used to make with Hunt’s tomato sauce. Kell claims it to be a traditional recipe, but the part-time Charlestonian who dined with me had never heard of this recipe, and I couldn’t find any reference to it. Whatever, I’d skip it in favor of the similarly tomato-pasty but more appealing “Low Country bouillabaisse” ($24) — a big, messy fish-and-sausage stew topped with a segment of North country dungeness crab.
Service here is energetic, proud and fast, if a little programmed. On both visits our servers were quite eager to “get our appetizers working” before we ordered our entrees. We actually asked one fellow if we could order our meal all at once and be done with our menus, but he wouldn’t hear of it. It goes like this: order drinks, order appetizers, and within seconds someone drops off yellow squares of cornbread (the kind with the sticky surface that reminds me of Jiffy mix). My only small complaint is they might have inquired about the dishes that went uneaten.
Goin’ Coastal trumpets a wonderful mission statement, and that’s what it needs to focus on. We’re in a huge non-coastal city with the world’s busiest airport, but nowhere near the seafood cultures of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Focus on buying fish from responsible sources, cook it with the care it merits, and then I’ll bite.
1021 Virginia Ave. NE, Atlanta, 404-941-9117
Food: Sustainable seafood, with dishes that reference the Gulf Coast and the Lowcountry
Service: Friendly, but could be a bit more attentive to uneaten food
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m., Sunday, 5-10 p.m.
Best dishes: Fresh oysters, simply broiled fish, roasted potatoes, cole slaw
Vegetarian selections: Side dishes and salads
Children: Fine for older and well-behaved kids, but there are likely people here who got their own babysitter
Parking: Street parking
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Moderate