The arched doorways and grand expanses of marble flooring of the Piazza at Paces — an Atlanta office park that fancies itself a Tuscan villa — once led diners to the swank, Euro-smart Joël Brasserie.
Now the serene, moneyed space takes you to a new restaurant — one that thrums with audible excitement behind a rustic, wide-planked wooden door. You crack it open to raucous chatter and country music, to walls of bourbon and heaping bowls of boiled peanuts, to velvet Elvises and grand images of pig butchery from local artist Tracy Hartley. It’s like “The Beverly Hillbillies” have moved in.
The new tenants are, in fact, the Local Three: Todd Mussman and Ryan Turner from Vinings’ terrifically overachieving deli, Muss & Turner’s, and their new partner, chef Chris Hall, the former chef de cuisine from Old Fourth Ward bistro 4th & Swift.
After speaking with Hall, I don’t think he’d mind the comparison to Jed Clampett at all. In fact, he peppers his far-reaching Southern menu with pop culture references. His Big Mac doppelgänger is called the “McDowell” after a McRipoff burger in the Eddie Murphy movie “Coming to America.” On the drinks side you’ll find the “Caucasian,” made with Kahlúa, vodka and, ahem, nondairy creamer. You got that “The Big Lebowski” reference, didn’t you?
Such is Local Three — a jokey, warmhearted, sloppy, jamming, down-to-earth spot that’s still trying to squeeze its all-over-the-place personality into a cohesive vision of good dining. Unlike Muss & Turner’s, which grew slowly and organically from a deli and gourmet shop, Local Three hits the scene with far grander ambitions from the start. I suspect it will realize them with time. For now, it’s a lovable mess, emphasis on the lovable.
Hall cooks with the giddy freedom of a longtime second-in-command who’s finally in charge. He wants to do it all, from sloppy sandwiches to trash-chic Southern revival to $24 scallop entrees. The menu offers so many fun directions that you smile broadly and search out the items that work.
A good place to start is with something off the well-annotated drinks list assembled by beverage director Matt Lathan. Those bourbons bear exploring, as do the wide-ranging craft beers and wines. There are cocktails from classic to silly, though I’m sorry to report I wouldn’t go near the Causasian. Love me some Big Lebowski, but nondairy creamer? Seriously? Let’s all hope that Hall isn’t into “American Pie” because I’d hate to imagine his homage cocktail called “the Stifler.”
Drink what you will, but be sure to nosh on little things because Hall gets them just right. His boiled peanuts ($3) will make you, my fellow Yankees, believe. Flavors of garlic, chile, clove and bay leaf dance about in each creamy legume. Ditto his freshly fried chicharrones (pork skins, $3), zingy with seasoning and cut to irresistible bite-sized pieces. Beef jerky ($4) has a fine flavor, but Hall may want to rethink the texture, which hovers somewhere between rawhide and tungsten carbide.
From there you can go in any number of directions on this menu, one of which is deep into the heart of today’s porcine zeitgeist. Mussman prepares a banging charcuterie platter called “The Notorious P.I.G.” ($14) that goes far, far beyond the rounds of cold salami favored elsewhere. It changes nightly: On our night it holds wonderful slivers of corned tongue, a rich and gooey slab of head cheese, smoked bologna and super-freaky pickled red hots that I enjoyed more for their audacity than their flavor.
Or you might try a more restaurant-y appetizer. Hall does well when the flavors are earthy, rich and layered. A shallow bowl of oven-roasted mushrooms over creamy polenta and truffle jus ($9) surprises you with its balance and nuance. A special of rosy lamb tenderloin ($11) pairs with a juicy house merguez sausage in a cast-iron dish. It gets better: Fried chickpea crunch bombs are scattered about the dish, soaking up a terrific anchovy-garlic sauce. Your fork will dart madly as you assemble a bit of everything for that ahhh bite.
And Hall makes the chicken pot pie ($15) I’ve been waiting for. Under its round of tender biscuit crust lurk loose, ropy lengths of pulled white meat and cut vegetables bound in equal measures of cream and stock. As a dish like this must be, it is perfectly salted.
Hall layers seasonings better than salad greens, which always seem limp and overdressed on the plate. Some greens anchor a listless plate of tuna crudo ($13) that look so out of place in this hipster hootenanny. Others sag under the weight of a tarragon buttermilk dressing in a special featuring wiggly, undercooked local shrimp ($14).
The two pastas I try come as vehicles for extraordinarily buttery sauces as well as all kinds of pop-pop-pop ingredients. Dude likes big flavors. Spicy crab spaghettini ($20) is intriguing at first bite and scarily rich by the third. The handmade folded pasta envelopes called fazzoletti ($11 at lunch) are undercooked (you can see the raw insides when you slice through) and so richly sauced that it’s hard to appreciate the otherwise appealing garnishes of kale, peppers, cannellini beans and sausage.
And what of that McDowell ($12) with its two grass-fed patties, special sauce, American cheese and tomatoes? I don’t have a Big Mac-shaped spot in my heart, so that excess of pink ooze and slices of cheese-like plastic don’t do it for me. The fries are good.
Pastry chef Gary Scarborough, the longtime sweets-master for Fifth Group restaurants (La Tavola, South City Kitchen, et al) isn’t yet doing his best work. He’s trying to get with the program (playful, Southern) but has yet to find his signature. A warm chocolate pudding cake (all desserts $6) with Cap’n Crunch peanut butter ice cream doesn’t deliver the wit it promises (the cereal pieces simply pock a watery scoop of ice cream). A passion fruit and coconut float with ginger ale is all sugar, no tropics. Best is a silky butternut squash flan with candied walnuts and maple syrup.
A big part of Local Three’s appeal is in the front of the house. Not only is it one of the warmest new spaces in town, but everyone in the staff gives off a relaxed, happy-to-be-there vibe that becomes infectious. You do want to linger over a French press coffee or an after-dinner drink. You want to shoot the breeze with your server. You don’t want to leave.
Which is why I consider Local Three a destination-worthy restaurant. That, and the real potential in the kitchen. Chris Hall is a talented chef who just needs to focus and figure out where he’s going. A good menu should be like a well-furnished room; you need a chair, a sofa, a table — and, of course, a rug to tie it all together.LOCAL THREE 3290 Northside Parkway, Atlanta, 404-968-2700 Food: Contemporary Southern defined to include everything from pork rinds to tuna crudo Service: Strikes the right easy-going, low-key tone Best dishes: Boiled peanuts, chicken pot pie, the “Notorious P.I.G.” Vegetarian selections: Some pastas, salads, sides and soups Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday; brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday Children: Fine for older kids who are comfortable in a noisy, adult atmosphere Parking: In attached lot Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate to high; you’ll shout to start, then adjust Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes