In the game of hearts, players try to avoid collecting any card from the suit of hearts as well as the queen of spades. That is, unless one player sneakily decides to collect each and every heart as well as the queen of spades, in which case he “shoots the moon.”
Great cocktails have to shoot the moon. If any ingredient is missing or out of proportion, then the drink just doesn’t work. You get a glass of blended liquids that make one another taste unpleasant. The cocktail might cloy with sweetness, shrivel your tongue with bitterness or sting with the burn of ethanol.
I can count on one hand the number of local bars that make great cocktails, and the new H. Harper Station in Reynoldstown is among them.
Owner Jerry Slater is himself a skilled mixologist, having honed his craft during his years as director of restaurants at the luxury Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Ky., and more recently at One Flew South in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. He has great backup in the dynamic duo of Tiffanie Barriere and Tony Hussain, who contribute their own talents and energy to a pages-long drinks menu that makes for great reading and difficult choices.
The terrific bar program (which also includes rare spirits, craft beers and smart wines) overshadows the kitchen at H. Harper Station. The place looks and feels like a fun, edgy watering hole but considers itself more of an all-purpose neighborhood bistro. The menu doesn’t take itself too seriously (burgers, deviled eggs, potpie) — that is, until it does (“foraged mushroom” ravioli, Arctic char with beluga lentils and grapes).
This place is young and trying to satisfy a food-savvy crowd that needs more chef-driven dining options nearby. But Slater and chef Ethan Ray haven’t yet figured out the right tone for the menu, which could use some more out-of-the-ballpark hits. For now, the drinks are destination worthy, the food likable but uneven.
The restaurant occupies the old Atlanta & West Point Railroad Freight Depot on Memorial Drive. The long, skinny building sat empty behind concertina wire for many years until it was renovated in 2007 for a previous restaurant tenant, the Depot. When Slater opened three months ago (and renamed the place for his grandfather, Harold Harper, a railroad engineer) he turned the lighting down to cocktail cool but left the interior much as it was.
I’ll tell you, this loooooong space would be a perfect venue for an epic Virginia reel. A bar extends along the west side of the room, and most people tend to stick close to it, lined up like refrigerator magnets. The tables along the other side fill up as the evening progresses.
But do as I did, and plan to beat your party by half an hour so you can belly up to the bar and have Barriere pick out a drink for you. The Bufula Negra ($9) has quickly become the house signature. Cloudy with muddled basil, it combines Buffalo Trace bourbon, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar and ginger beer. Gorgeously balanced, moody in tone, angular in its juxtapositions — it’s like drinking Miles Davis on ice.
What’s nice here is that the cocktails come in different speeds. There are highballs, sippable little aperitifs, honking punch bowls to share with a group and refreshing takes on tropical drinks, such as the Papa Doble ($8) — a rum and lime concoction in a cheerful goblet of crushed ice that is edged with grapefruit and Maraschino Luxardo for a sneaky complexity. Consider it Planter’s Punch for grown-ups.
Every cocktail tries to shoot the moon, as well it should, but not all succeed. The Fox Confessor ($10) blends vodka with black pepper syrup and a “muscadine shrub” made with vinegar, sugar and grape juice. The volatile vinegar in the shrub smells precisely like those little tubes of glue that came with balsa wood model airplanes. Still, a cocktail program this creative earns its near misses.
The bar snacks and small plates make for good noshing and work in context. How much fun is the relish tray ($3.50)? Two deviled egg halves, a small crock of pimento cheese with carrots and celery and a mini-heap of house pickles. Bright, easy, carb-free.
You can move easily from this to a charcuterie plate ($8) with thinly shaved country ham, all velvet and salt, to heap on Benton’s bacon bread with fig jam, or just twirl around your fork. There’s even a few chorizo coins thrown in for good measure.
That bacon bread shows up again alongside a terrific bowl of mussels ($7) with caramelized onions and wheat beer broth. It makes for some mighty porktastic dunking.
Ray (who took over from opening chef Duane Nutter) has some clever small plates that read more like miniaturized entrees. I love the prospect of the Lil’ Smokies ($9): a bowl of jalapeño mac and cheese sided by mustard greens and crowned with grilled franks made by Decatur’s Spotted Trotter. Doesn’t that sound like dinner? Alas, the corkscrew pasta has a weird texture, the greens bleed their juices and everything just slips about in the bowl.
Likewise, I loved the look of the thyme biscuit-topped chicken potpie ($9) more than the soupy and strangely vinegary mishmash of meat and vegetables within.
Though the menu isn’t long, it’s hard to figure out. What will be good? I’m guessing Ray’s heart is a little more in fine dining, judging by a fun and tasty root vegetable salad ($6) of beet cubes, blue cheese, fried parsnip squiggles and roasted carrot vinaigrette splattered painterly (and deliciously) over a white plate.
He also makes what I think is the best $20 steak in town, with root vegetables and a nice parsnip puree. The steak itself is super-tender teres major from Oregon’s Painted Hills, a producer of naturally raised beef. The teres major in a cow comes from the chuck primal cut. In a human, it’s that muscle by the bottom of your shoulder blade that gets sore when you do the lat pull downs at the gym. Who knew it made for such good eating?
Apart from the steak, I have yet to find an entree that seems more than fine. The grilled pork chop ($18) turns out to be a boneless loin chop, and not an inspiring one at that. That Arctic char ($19) tops bedmates of lentils, grapes, mustard greens and buttermilk — an odd little orgy that doesn’t generate any heat.
And the bacon and egg fettuccine ($16) just makes me sad. With its poached egg, cured pork belly, mustard greens and peas, it sounds like exactly the kind of heap I want to plant my face into. But with its too-thick noodles and salty gloss of sauce it becomes a slippery mishmash. Please, chef, work on this dish. My face wants it.
Pastry chef Sarah Ray (Ethan’s wife) keeps things interesting with her daily changing dessert menu, which always includes “cookies and cream” cookie sandwiches. Her peanut and sorghum pie ($6) seemed an interesting take on pecan pie, and everyone took a bite and went, “Hmmm.” But the chocolate torte ($6) layered with thick chocolate ganache was plate lickable.
I’d like to find a few more plates worthy of licking here. But for now I’m considering H. Harper Station as an awesome bar — one where I’m happy enough to stay for dinner.H. HARPER STATION 904 Memorial Drive, Atlanta, 678-732-0415 Food: Broad menu ranges from bar snacks and small plates to formal entrees, most with a Southern spin. Service: Informed and thoughtful, though the kitchen can be slow. Best dishes: Relish tray, root vegetable salad, mussels in wheat beer broth with bacon bread, “the Steak.” Vegetarian selections: Salads, a sandwich and a pasta Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 5-10 p.m. Sundays Children: Fine for older and well-behaved kids, but there are likely people here who got their own baby sitter. Parking: Private lot, with valet on weekends Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate to high Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes