In January I used this space to publish an open letter to Atlanta’s chefs. At that time I had recently resumed writing the lead restaurant reviews for this newspaper after a six-year hiatus and found myself in a very different dining town than the one I had last known. The city seemed to be in a restaurant rut — it was becoming a place that admired real personality less than another perfectly acceptable bowl of butternut squash soup. Too many folks were playing it safe, cooking with more competence than heart.
So, without naming any names, I outlined in that open letter 10 challenges to Atlanta chefs and gave the pot a good stir. Hundreds of comments piled up on my AJC blog. Local chefs followed with rebuttals, both on ajc.com and other media sites.
Now I want to name names. In our Fall 2011 Dining Guide — published in this Friday’s Go Guide and Thursday morning here on the Food and More blog — I’ll tell you about 10 chefs who are making Atlanta a better place to eat.
These are not necessarily the 10 best chefs in Atlanta, but the 10 who have broken from the pack in exhilarating ways.
But today I’ll begin with the chef who has the freshest point of view this city has seen in years: Billy Allin of Cakes & Ale restaurant in Decatur.
Last month, Allin made his long-planned move a quarter-mile down the road to the eastern edge of Decatur Square. The once-cramped restaurant (diners eating at the bar, drinkers hovering by the front door) now breathes more easily in two spacious rooms. Next door, the new Bakery at Cakes & Ale showcases a few house-made breads and pastries throughout the day and serves lunch prepared by the talented vegetable-forward (if not vegetarian) chef David Sweeney.
But if there’s one detail about the new space that seems to thrill Allin above all others, it’s the newest member of his kitchen — a wood-burning oven. “I’ve been wanting to get that smell of wood-smoke in my food for a long time. Even the bakers are playing with it, ” he laughs. With that long-coveted piece of equipment, this 38-year-old chef has arrived.
Allin’s journey to this place began at the California Culinary Academy — a Bay Area cooking school he turned to after a starter career as an investment manager. His wife, Kristin, an industrial engineer, supported him through school and an unpaid internship at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant that was supposed to last three months, but extended into a full year.
“It was a great education beyond what interns typically see, ” says Allin. “I was working the vegetable station and doing some butchering. Everyone in the kitchen there was like a teacher.”
Allin worked in restaurants in the Napa Valley and New York, but eventually ended up spending three years at Watershed restaurant under Scott Peacock, then one of the few chefs in Atlanta who was applying the farm-to-table ethos of Chez Panisse to typical Southern preparations and provender.
Allin opened Cakes & Ale in 2008 with a daily-changing menu that showed little of Watershed’s doggedly Southern perspective. In those early days, he might have served an antipasto salad with salami, or a frites cone filled with skinny fried okra, or gnocchi in a meat sugo, or a hamburger on a homemade English muffin. The ingredients were mostly Southern but the cooking gave off, if anything, a whiff of California-style Mediterranean.
Yet there was soon a restlessness to his cooking that defied typecasting. He tired of the burger just as the trend was taking off. He delighted area vegetarians with a bowl of buttery farro and mixed veggies, while meat lovers got slivers of tongue in a tangy gribiche sauce that seemed straight from a French bistro. And then both dishes were gone.
Before long, Billy and Kristin Allin began supplying the restaurant with tomatoes, arugula and other veggies from a plot of clear, sunny land in their enormous backyard, just down the street. His motivation for gardening was at least partly financial: “Local tomatoes cost $5 a pound!”
Allin’s menu changes often, and his cooking serves as more of a reaction to what is in season at any time than any preconceived cultural references. If pak choy is coming up in his garden, then he may combine it with tomatoes, cucumbers and sesame oil. Squash finds its way not into a creamy soup, but into a supremely weird — yet supremely tasty — salad with cubes of melon and a swipe of creamy ricotta. Maybe not every dish is a hit, but regulars know to give this place latitude.
Yet Allin countervails his open approach to combining ingredients with an almost tight-fisted sensibility. He’s not one to pad a plate with cheap greens or starch. In fact, he’d rather just reduce the size of the plate than garnish it with what he considers unnecessary components.
“We don’t flourish the plates. They’re very pretty, but I’m always worried about ‘Chinese buffet syndrome’ — you know, when the sweet and sour pork bleeds into the lo mein. I’d rather people notice the intensity of our flavors.”
Kristin Allin is currently busy getting a rooftop garden going at the new location so she can grow the lettuces that critters swipe from her home garden.
“I can’t wait for the lettuce to start coming in, ” says Billy Allin. “Most people start with a salad, and their first impressions need to be great. Freshly cut lettuce has that kind of chlorophyll taste that you don’t get from lettuce after it has been refrigerated for a couple of days.”
Not many chefs worry about getting their guests that blast of chlorophyll. We’re lucky one of them lives and cooks here.