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Miller Union dining review, west Midtown

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$$$-$$$$

What an amazing first year Miller Union has had. This westside spot has been called one of the best new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit and Esquire magazines as well as by the James Beard Foundation. Atlanta magazine named it the best new restaurant in the city. When I contacted chef/co- owner Steven Satterfield to ask a few questions, he apologized for the bad connection. He was in New York, having just made corn bread dressing on “The Martha Stewart Show.”

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

I had seen Satterfield a few nights earlier as he was making his friendly rounds through the busy, dim, noisy chain of dining rooms at Miller Union. Lanky and loose-limbed, he always seems enveloped by his oversize chef’s coat. Satterfield cuts a wholly different figure from his business partner, the posture-perfect Neal McCarthy, who roams the dining room in the kind of tailored Italian-cut suits that only the zero-percent body fat set can get away with.

That evening I also bumped into a colleague who was just leaving the restaurant. When I asked how she liked Miller Union, she said it was good but was expecting something more, “what with all the hype.”

Ah, yes, the hype. You must overlook the serious buzz surrounding Miller Union to see it for what it is — a restaurant that pairs simple food with good wine in a sophisticated setting. There’s something kind of brilliant in its mission statement but also a part that feels (to me, at least) self-limiting. The fine, locally sourced ingredients speak for themselves with a faint Southern accent and, often, only a little salt and pepper for amplification. It’s a modest tale of pork and kale, of chicken and carrots, and maybe a splash of rich cream.

Feta snack (all photos by Becky Stein)

Feta snack (all photos by Becky Stein)

Perhaps what makes Miller Union such a prime example of state-of-the-art dining in Atlanta is the way it melds the talents of its two owners, the sum greater than the parts. Satterfield was the longtime second-in-command at Watershed (and, before that, the front man for the Atlanta trance-rock band Seely). He’s a culinary purist who celebrates good ingredients with great care at the stove. McCarthy, an Englishman, was the general manager at Sotto Sotto, and he takes both the wine list and staff education to heart. The two come together in local architecture firm AI3’s celebrated dining room, where farmhouse design meets warehouse space under the best lighting in the city.

I’ve been here often enough to know I want one of the tables in the “library” room (set with bookshelves), where the sound engineering is at its most conversation-friendly. And then I want a salad because nobody knows how to dress bitter greens like Satterfield — with a bare sheen of sharp shallot vinaigrette. The current salad ($7) with slivers of Georgia apple, celery, cress and romaine tastes just right on a pitch-black fall evening.

Griddled chicken

Griddled chicken

Talk about simple, I want chicken next. Satterfield takes a boneless breast and thigh of Darby Farms chicken ($21) and griddles them until the skin turns to a golden crisp with a bit of subcutaneous fat attaching it to the meat, as succulent as that beneath the skin on a roast suckling pig. Maybe I’d like a teensy-weensy more flavor pop from the vegetable sides — mixed braised greens and cauliflower roasted with mustard seed — that look gorgeous, taste healthy and ultimately turn boring.

But I’m not complaining, exactly, because these incredibly crisp-juicy pieces of chicken play so well off the wines on the list —Miller Union’s great ace in the hole.

McCarthy has curated a really enticing list of mostly American and French bottles that still makes room for free spirits like the racy Hungarian Kiralyudvar ($46), a dry white made from Tokaji Furmint. But I’m looking at the reds, and as the waiter knows the list inside and out, he manages to up-sell us from an inexpensive southern French blend to the 2008 Domaine de la Solitute Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($75), a tightly wound wine glinting with spice and power and changing from sip to sip.

Salad with apples and celery

Salad with apples and celery

It’s nice to find food that can take a back seat to wine, as dining demands from time to time. It’s nice to find a staff that knows how this works.

The menu changes with the seasons but not so much; some signature dishes have stayed on the menu from day one. The farm egg baked in a mild celery-infused cream ($8) is fun. You swirl the soft orange yolk into the shallow glaze of cream and dip toast rusks into the soft richness. Chicken liver mousse ($8) — as soft as frosting and dark brown rather than rosy — is less fun.

Oh, but the feta snack ($4)! I almost forgot to mention the dish that’s the most fun of all. It’s just a little ramekin of chunky-creamy feta spread with crunchy carrots, beans and radishes. But it’s the most appetizing nibble you could hope for. Get one for the table.

Yet there are some new items to watch for. Chef de cuisine Justin Burdett prepares plump lamb sausages ($21) and places them over lentils with threads of braised red cabbage. (Beware: They are quite spicy, and there’s no warning.) It’s all very good, but I have to say I want the cabbage to be juicy and melting like it is in Germany, or maybe a splash of sauce to goop things up.

Satterfield isn’t one for sauce. “I like things simple and don’t want to add it if the dish doesn’t need it,” he tells me. Maybe, but sometimes I think more moisture and mitigating flavors would help the ingredients on his plates hum the same tune. All kinds of wild mushrooms bounce around a plate of sautéed quail ($22) with arugula and a puck of corn bread dressing, and while the flavors are nice here and there, they never register as lush. Ditto a perfect slab of pan-seared flounder ($26) — so heavenly for the first bites until its bed of Carolina Gold rice with butternut squash and escarole stiffens into a dense brick.

A bowl of braised rabbit ($28) over creamed turnips has the braising juices — and the lustiness — that keeps your fork returning to the food past the time you’re full.

Pastry chef Lauren Raymond’s desserts follow the kitchen’s tone to a satisfying conclusion. Warm plum crisp ($7) comes with a thick custard sauce you can taste quality egg in. Apple-pecan cake ($7) stands tall and a bit dry, but it’s salty caramel-honey ice cream adds intrigue. Best is a warm brownie ($7) with crisp edges and that kind of fudgy denseness that feels like it’s massaging your tongue with pure chocolate.

I always leave Miller Union thinking about the good ingredients I’ve eaten, from the fruity olive oil in the salad dressing to the bittersweet chocolate in the brownie. Do I leave with a major crush on any dish? Not really, but that’s part of this restaurant’s unusual appeal. Remember: simple food, good wine, stylish atmosphere. Maybe that’s what all the hype is about.

MILLER UNION
999 Brady Ave., Atlanta. 678-733-8550
3stars5
Food: Simple, good food prepared from as many local sources as possible.
Service: very competent and well-versed in the menu and wine list
Best dishes: feta snack, Georgia apples with celery and local lettuces, griddled Darby Farms chicken, fudge brownie à la mode
Vegetarian selections: Several appetizers as a well as vegetable plate that feels more like a collection of sides.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-
2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Children: I’m sure they would be warmly welcomed, but this dim, loud spot isn’t right for kids. If you need to ask, don’t bring them.
Parking: some street parking as well as valet
Reservations: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: no
Noise level: high
Patio: yes
Takeout: yes
RatingsKey_3

48 comments Add your comment

sansho1

December 3rd, 2010
8:43 am

I haven’t gotten over there yet, but this review seems to confirm something I’ve suspected — you need to be an oenophile to fully appreciate the place, which might send the tab into the stratosphere considering the simple food presentation.

the fish

December 3rd, 2010
9:18 am

I’m a big fan of “simple and delicious”. However, I found Miller Union “simple and boring”. Count me in the category of “I don’t get the hype”. :(

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happy diner

December 3rd, 2010
10:30 am

I love the place. There was no mention of lunch, which is fantastic! Miller Union is classy, but not pretentious, and the food is always delicious. Definitely one of my favorite spots in the city!

HotlantaHobo

December 3rd, 2010
11:07 am

Sounds nice, but for a salad, flounder and dessert with a $36 bottle of wine and no cocktails comes to $146 for 2 with tax and tip, based on their online dinner menu. Does simple dining have to cost this much?

Oddly there are no shellfish offerings and only one ocean fish and one inland fish. Savannah isn’t that far away to not count for locally sourced is it? Or are there just too many patrons that don’t want/eat seafood?

I’m sure they do what they do well, but I think I’d want more seafood choices for this kind of investment.

not surprised

December 3rd, 2010
11:12 am

3 stars? Sounds like everything I want in a restaurant….. good fresh local seasonal food offered in a warm space with great service and excellent wine list.

John Kessler

December 3rd, 2010
12:16 pm

Not Surprised: and that is precisely the definition of a three-star restaurant.

kevin

December 3rd, 2010
12:42 pm

I get it the hype…maybe

I loved the terrine appetizer my wife and I had. It was truly one of the best, if not the best, I have ever had. However, the braised rabbit and I had, while cooked to perfection, was drastically underseasoned–almost unseasoned. Luckily, I happened to be sitting right next to a shelf holding salt and pepper shakers.

All in all, a great concept and good food. Would try again. 3 stars seems spot on; though, I would have given it 4 if my entree were better seasoned.

Frank

December 3rd, 2010
12:42 pm

The hype comes from the lack of Atlanta restaurants with high quality standards to compare each other to which can be counted on two hands. MU is a good restaurant but if MU was in NYC, it would just blend in with the hundreds of other quality restaurants that never received an award. No one cares about the 20th runner who crosses the finish line in a Marathon of 1000s of runners, but it’s easy to recognize the 3 place winner in a race of 10. But in the mean time, keep up the award winning food that I can’t remember a day later.

Atlantan

December 3rd, 2010
1:02 pm

Sorry, but I’d give it 4-Stars based on your rating system – it is excellent.

Genevieve

December 3rd, 2010
1:38 pm

Clearly they are doing something right if James Beard Foundation, Bon Appetit and Esquire think that Miller Union is one of the best restaurants in the country?

TS Eliot

December 3rd, 2010
1:49 pm

This place is wonderful. Great staff- the best around. And the food is outstanding.

Unimpressive meal

December 3rd, 2010
2:01 pm

Went with a small group, was expensive and unimpressive. I can cook better, with more flavor, at home. Won’t be going back.

white jeans

December 3rd, 2010
2:22 pm

Why are you adding to the hype? just to put your stamp on it?
Didn’t the AJC review them this time last year?

Foodgeek

December 3rd, 2010
2:42 pm

I think that this place is fine, but it is too expensive for what you get. Fresh vegetables shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

James

December 3rd, 2010
2:45 pm

I’d agree with the 3 stars as well. I came away after eating there a little disappointed, but that was primarily thanks to the hype.

I also agree with kevin about the braised rabbit needing some seasoning. It seems that chefs may get a little too enthusiastic about the “farm to table, letting the ingredients speak for themselves” idea at the expense of a little seasoning that would really round out a dish.

Either that or my palate is too unrefined to appreciate subtlety :)

Nazan Yar

December 3rd, 2010
2:55 pm

I was also rather unimpressed. Everything was quite good, but everything was just quite good – nothing extraordinary, nothing worth driving out of the way for. I think 3 stars is right on.

John Kessler

December 3rd, 2010
2:57 pm

James — The paradox of hype. You really hit the nail on the head. Christiane Lauterbach at Atlanta Magazine says that your own discoveries always taste better. Meaning: your reaction to an unknown restaurant is different if you wander into it without any preconception, but once someone tells you to go, you put on your critical hat and start finding fault. I bet your palate is right on the money.

Geoff

December 3rd, 2010
3:16 pm

My question is less about Miller Union and more about the rating system that Mr. Kessler uses as part of his reviews. I’ve read many of his past reviews, this included, and there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between what is written as a great dining experience, and then a 3 star rating. The same situation with the review of Woodfire Grill…a great meal, great service, and overall great experience by all accounts of the review written, and then 3 stars. What makes for a 4 star restaurant then?

publius

December 3rd, 2010
3:45 pm

NOT SURPRISED….. to see this rating. Wife and I went for anniversary several weeks ago. Regardless of the hype, the flavors were unimaginative, the menu was limited, the wine was expensive, and the service was nothing to write home about. I would have given it two stars……. and will not be back.

And as far as the hype goes, some owners/chefs have a knack for networking with the foodie critics just how some kids become teachers pets. Perhaps that is the case here. I can think of no other explanation.

jack trent

December 3rd, 2010
3:56 pm

check empire state south. that is a 4 star restaurant

JBS

December 3rd, 2010
4:08 pm

John, I am curious why you decided to review a restaurant which had been so recently reviewed by the AJC, albeit by Meredith. Although you gave it 3 rather than 4 stars, your review was still pretty positive. It’s not like you think Meredith completely whiffed, just overrated it a little bit. These things are obviously somewhat subjective. What prompted you review it “again”? (And by you I mean the AJC.) Will you be re-reviewing other fairly new restaurants? Or others that Meredith did fairly recently. Just curious. Or is it because there is just less places to write about because of the economy. BTW, been enjoying the blog lately.

FoodFan

December 3rd, 2010
4:10 pm

Definitely doesn’t live up to the hype.Yes John, I also enjoyed the raw veggies with the feta dip, in the sort of way it reminded me of the grown-up version of the veggies & dip your mom would put in your lunchbox as a kid. But I don’t see how raw veggies & dip can translate to best restaurant in Atlanta conversation? I had the rabbit, and I thought it was underseasoned and the sauce too watery. Just nothing really stood out to me.

I have had wonderfully simple food – and I get the whole “less is more” thing but there’s a difference to things being simply seasoned & underseasoned. Things can be delicate and interesting – and I just didnt’ think anything there was that interesting.

There’s a difference to things being prepared simply and things prepared blandly. And there’s a difference between price and value – I’d rather spend the same amount and eat at Rathbun’s or Eugene, where I think the value of the experience and meal you get is just exceedingly better.

Edward

December 3rd, 2010
4:20 pm

For the prices, would it kill them to buy a container of sea salt to use in the kitchen? Count me in the “don’t-understand-the-hype” category, as well.

Hilton

December 3rd, 2010
5:19 pm

Two friends and I had dinner there on Thursday night, and although the service was wondeful, the flavorings were a bit underwhelming. I had the duck, and that was a mistake. Very bland; way to simple for me.
Rathbuns or Abbatoire – I’ll stick with those restuarants.

GOD

December 3rd, 2010
6:18 pm

Mr Kessler has done his job! Going against all the other food critics trying to get somebody to read the small town newespaper

Smirkin

December 3rd, 2010
6:24 pm

@Frank- I’m assuming that you don’t live in Atlanta by choice, because you bitch about how 2nd rate the Atlanta food scene is more than anyone that I’ve ever seen. You’re like a broken record, either making fun of burger joints or complaining about how this isn’t a “real city”.

We get it. You’re above it all. But it seems that you aren’t so above the dining scene that you have better things to do than read about and comment on it.

Genevieve

December 3rd, 2010
10:38 pm

I love you GOD

Ann Beatrice

December 4th, 2010
1:47 am

4 stars, NO QUESTION.

Bob

December 4th, 2010
8:47 am

To me a five-star restauramt is one you are still talking about (positively) a year or two later; a four-star, a month or two later; and a three-star, the rest of that week and maybe into the next if someone asks – some nice things about the meal, but some things pretty average. I haven’t tried it yet, but this sounds like a three-star from John’s review.

Picks and Pans

December 4th, 2010
9:10 am

Dined there soon after it opened and had a great table, excellent service and a fine meal. Then went again, summer night, crowded. Bad table, ignored for a while, then rushed service, still decent food (i.e. the feta). Feel no need to go back. Misquoting Yogi – “No one goes there anymore, it’s too popular.”

Overpriced and tiny portions

December 4th, 2010
12:37 pm

Overpriced and tiny portions. Lunch for 2 over 45 dollars and still hungry. Will never go back or recommend it. It will be gone within 2 years.

Anne

December 4th, 2010
2:26 pm

My dining experience there was solid, but not amazing. Perhaps I had heard too much hype before dining there. I definitely think the food is overpriced. Maybe if the prices were less, I would have left with a different impression. In this city of (very fortunately) wonderful restaurants, I won’t be rushing back to Miller Union. When you can pay less for a better meal at a places like Wisteria or Watershed, I would go to these instead.

John Kessler

December 4th, 2010
2:37 pm

JBS – I think that any restaurant that hasn’t been reviewed in the past year is a potential candidate for another reassessment. That said, I try to come up with a mix of places that are new, places that people perhaps haven’t heard about or thought about in a while, and places that people are talking about. I’ve fielded a lot of questions about Miller Union — people often ask me what I think of it, whether they’ve personally been or have just heard about it. So it seemed a good choice for a review. It’s definitely the kind of place that gets people talking and defining for themselves and others what they want from a great dining experience today.
A few years ago, when I previously held this job, I was more concerned with cataloguing Atlanta restaurants and keeping track of places that were “up for review.” Today, it’s a different endeavor — much more about opening dialogue, such as this one.

John Kessler

December 4th, 2010
2:44 pm

Bob — Very well stated! I’m going to remember that.

JBS

December 4th, 2010
5:10 pm

John, thanks for responding. That makes sense.

Silver Creek Doug

December 4th, 2010
5:31 pm

I was curious to see what most people thought of Miller Union, as Steven Satterfield is a high school classmate of mine from Savannah. I’ve been thinking about trekking in from the country to try it one night.

After reading everyone’s comments, I will try it, but I won’t be expecting a whole lot.

Andre

December 4th, 2010
7:00 pm

Miller Union is boring. Anyone can get exquisitely sourced ingredients and roast them with salt and pepper and stick it on the plate. Its like an organic, farm raised Mary Mac’s tea room. Yawn.

Jessica

December 4th, 2010
9:28 pm

I’m confused. You praise the mission and applaud the intentions of the menu and then in the same breath criticize the dishes for upholding what you just praised as being a positive. Frankly, it’s a welcome change to eat somewhere where the food isn’t disguised and hidden beneath salt and sauces and oils. The ingredients used are so fresh and thoughtfully combined that the experience is about discovering the actual flavors and appreciating them. I found the trout dish to be extremely flavor-FULL as well as the flounder. The environment is as cozy as a living room but beautiful enough to make your time there special. 4 stars.

john

December 5th, 2010
11:03 am

I haven’t been to Miller Union, but I still have my Seely CD! I like it. Nice to hear that Steven has many talents and is doing well.

addison steele

December 5th, 2010
11:55 am

I went to the opera the other night because I heard the music was remarkable. To my great disappointment, there was not a single guitar solo, no encore sets at the end, and the performers insisted on singing in Italian the entire night.

dd

December 5th, 2010
3:20 pm

The food was good, nothing really special. The atmosphere like many higher end restaurants in Atlanta was LOUD. Seated 5 inches from next table, I could hear folks nearby better than i could hear other person at my table.

why is it that in this town, the higher priced the restaurant the louder and more crowded it has to be!

John Kessler

December 6th, 2010
9:16 am

Metaphor as a rhetorical device. I’m digging this commentary…keep it coming…sing me an aria of disagreement…

confused

December 7th, 2010
9:26 am

Why was there no mention of the Harvest Dinners or lunch? Sounds like an incomplete review to me.

frdagaa

December 8th, 2010
12:44 pm

I like Bob’s way of thinking about restaurant ratings, but mine’s different. It assumes you are a very good amateur cook.

5 star restaurant: gives you food, service, and an overall experience that you really enjoy but that you could never re-create at home, no matter how much $$$ and effort you put in.
4-star: food and experience that you really enjoy but could conceivably recreate with a lot of time, effort and $$$
3-star: Good food, quality experience, but could be replicated at home by good amateur cooks.
2-star: Significant flaws in the food, service, or overall experience, but nothing worse than what you’d regularly do at home.
1-star: All you can think about is leaving and going home ’cause you can do so much better at home.

Never been to MU, but it sounds like a 3-star to me. Watershed kinda fell in that range for me as well. Eugene, Woodfire, Abatoire … 4-star on my scale. Still simple food, farm-to table concept, but there is something — a level of sophistication — that transcends simply “high-quality ingredients well prepared”. Craft is an interesting one … kinda between 3 and 4 stars on my system.

Colin Law

December 8th, 2010
2:28 pm

Miller Union is worth the trip to sample the homemade ice cream sandwiches for dessert. Get one of every flavor they have available. Seriously!