A couple of years ago Linton Hopkins made a bold move. He deep-sixed the traditional appetizer-entree format of the menu at Restaurant Eugene and redrew it by food group. Fish down one column of the tri-fold list, vegetables on another and meat and game on a third. Not only that, the menu held dozens of offerings, most of them small plates.
Today the menu strikes a happy medium. There are more entrees and far fewer appetizers, but the tripartite formula remains, and it focuses your attention on the ingredients, where they come from and — bear with me — what they mean.
In the six years since Hopkins and his wife, Gina, opened Eugene (named for his grandfather), he has emerged as one of the great thinkers about Southern food. The current president of the Southern Foodways Alliance and a founder of the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, Hopkins cooks with a nod to history and tradition as much as to the community of farmers, artisans, foragers and general face-stuffers who are remaking Southern food for today’s consumer. He’s a smart Snickerdoodle, that one.
Over the years Eugene has grown less formal, exchanging its elaborated logo for a slick sans-serif one in the process. Even though an older, dressier crowd still comes early, it attracts a later crowd and has more of a bar scene (with terrific cocktails that rival those at his casual pub across the porte-cochère, Holeman & Finch Public House).
The menu changes with the local provender, and Hopkins and his chef de cuisine Jason Paolini aren’t afraid to take chances. For that reason, Eugene can be an inconsistent restaurant. You can have a strangely not good dish here. You can have a strangely not good meal. But you can also have a fantastic one.
If Bacchanalia is the kind of restaurant I best like for a romantic meal, Eugene is great for a double date, so you can better explore Gina Hopkins’ excellent if expensive wine list and pass around extremely interesting food.
A bottle of Vilmart & Cie. Grand Cellier d’Or champagne ($106) is a “grower champagne,” i.e., produced by the estate that owns the vineyard. It has that quiet, unfolding power that primes your palate for engagement. It’s a champagne that makes your tongue go, “Bring it.”
Four of us send plates around the table — first appetizers, then entrees — some eliciting raves, and some pursed smiles.
The aahs: “A plate of Rashid’s greens” ($10) from local grower Rashid Nuri. On a turnip-buttermilk puree sits a compressed disc of beet greens with smoked onions, and on top of that is a wild mound of mustard greens sweetened with blackberry juice. You’re not sure you like it, then you love it, then you can’t believe it.
Next comes a quivering slab of hot seared foie gras ($19) with parsnip puree, pickled sunchoke and a brilliant potlikker consommé — rich, resonant, zingy.
The hmms: Agnolotti (stuffed pasta) with a coarse English pea filling ($12), a too-buttery and unseasoned lobster sauce, a couple of tasteless crawfish and a section of preserved tangerine that makes you shudder from the sharpness. A huge portion of sweetbreads ($16) with a lot of connective tissue holding the lobes together and a sweet orange brown butter sauce. A tender fillet of American red snapper ($34) with all kinds of stuff (ham powder, smoked serranos, daikon radish, morels) that don’t add up to much. Good fish, though.
The ewws: Gluey wild mushroom and sesame gnocchi ($15) bouncing around a mushroom broth with celery and dill. The most bizarre duck entree ($38) I’ve ever encountered. Somehow the menu description didn’t prepare us for a kind of ball of springy forcemeat about the color and shape of a human heart that had been cut in two and placed on stripes of root beer marshmallow and carrot puree. Talk about that frosty mug taste, there was no missing the root beer flavor.
And then the tasting of spring vegetables ($22) hit the table and any thoughts of A&W went out the window. Hot vegetables snuggled into a gorgeous metal casserole, and our forks madly darted from golden beet puree with balsamic sorghum walnuts to creamed kohlrabi, to baby carrots, to braised Vidalia onion stems, to creamy cranberry beans, to the greens-and-fennel salad served alongside. I’ve never had a more brilliant vegetable plate.
The staff, under the watchful eye of maitre d’ Jeff Hagley, are always happy to swoop in and share their own thoughts and insights into the food. There’s a sense of joy in this dining room.
Pastry chef Aaron Russell ends things on a very upbeat note, with his chocolate soufflé ($10) presented like a sandwich cookie with chocolate cognac cream and walnut milk sorbet.
Eugene also offers the option of a five-course ($75) and seven-course ($95) tasting menu. I return for the menu to see what the kitchen has in store. Some restaurants show off their nerviest stuff with the tasting menus. Others conduct a little interview and adjust each tasting menu to the likes of the party. But many opt for the gracious plenty, and offer a progression of courses no one will complain about.
Eugene seems to go the latter route, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because Chef Hopkins is so often absent from service. The menu we were served was nice, but it’s not the way to fathom this kitchen’s strange brilliance.
Our five-course menu starts with a couple of gifts from the kitchen (as does that of our neighbors; I checked). A single Wellfleet oyster with clabber cream and Georgia Hackleback caviar precedes a tasty mini-quenelle of trout tartare. The English pea agnolotti return, this time with a piece of butter-poached lobster. We then get a cube of tasty grouper with clams and cauliflower, and then a couple of slices of Painted Hills ribeye steak with potatoes and mushrooms. A bit of tangy, creamy Bonne Bouche goat’s milk cheese and a lemon pound cake with buttermilk sorbet finish us off.
I like everything, but I prefer to take my chances with the standing menu, root beer and all.
Restaurant Eugene: 2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta; 404-355-0321.