You know the question. Here is your choice of answers:
a) The chicken.
b) The egg.
c) The demiurge willed both into existence at the same precise moment of avian creation.
d) Some kind of proto-poultry crawled forth from the seas eons ago and, once on land, began incubating its young outside of its body. Over many millennia, both entities evolved into the creatures we know today, so the question becomes moot.
Now let me tell you the answer, which is b), the egg came first. It was cooked to a precise 63 degrees just to that point where both the white and yolk had turned from liquid to the most tremulous of solids. It came as the centerpiece of a Lyonnaise salad ($6.50) composed of frisée greens, chunks of Nueske’s bacon and many buttery bread crumbs. Next came the chicken ($15) in a bowl of herb-flecked sauce with potato dumplings and small poached vegetables. Neither is quite what I expect of these two well-known preparations, yet both show off the perspective of chef/owner Marc Taft, who likes to put his own gentle spin on classic dishes.
Chicken and the Egg, with its “modern farmstead fare,” seems to be the restaurant Marietta has long needed. Set in a shopping center a mile and a half from the town square, it sends a smartly pitched message to thrilled locals that they needn’t drive to Midtown for an up-to-the-moment dining experience.
I hate to laud a place as grounded and honest as this one for copping to “dining trends,” so let’s just say Chicken and the Egg captures the contemporary Atlanta restaurant aesthetic with real aplomb. I think you will love its vision, which brings to mind such restaurants as Miller Union and Empire State South. And I think you will like its food well enough. Many dishes here have a clean presentation and taste of carefully sourced ingredients, but they also needs some tweaks and a stronger point of view to really sing.
With its soothing gray/pale green color scheme, reclaimed wood tables and judicious use of homespun chicken art, the look (by Seiber Design, Inc.), the 8,500-square-foot space seems remarkably cozy, both during the day when natural light floods its bank of plate windows and in the evening when canny spot lighting plays off the warm textures. Tables and booths are well-spaced, making conversation easy while you dine. But if you want more buzz, then stay in the darker, more crowded bar, where the mixologists prepare grilled apple Manhattans and poached pear Margaritas.
There’s also something called “Dirty South” ($9) that manages to figure pickled okra juice and pimento-cheese-stuffed okra into a dirty martini. I know, dear reader, that I should have tried this drink to report on it, but I didn’t have it in me. Not when the great Chateau D’Esclans rose called “Whispering Angel” comes by the glass ($6). The wine list travels enough ground to keep me interested, from Tuscany, to South Africa’s Stellenbosch to Paso Robles.
And, if you want to bring a bit of that bar vibe into the dining room, get a round of cocktails and a jar of excellent black-eyed pea hummus ($6) to spread on toasts with some briny tapenade (seasoned olive paste) to kick it up a notch. Pimento cheese ($6) in another jar would be better if it weren’t cold and rock solid from the fridge. Fried green tomatoes ($7.50) tricked out with pimento cheese fondue, country ham and tomato jam come to the table lukewarm and artless, with the breading flaking off the hard slices.
A lot of dishes, while basically sound in conception, suffer from minor, fixable execution glitches. We love the butter lettuce salad ($6.50) for its creamy blue cheese and crisp candied pecans, but mere forks are helpless against the wine-poached rock of a pear hogging the plate. Ripe pear or bust, wouldn’t you think? I love smoky Nueske’s bacon, but those lardons of it in the otherwise great Lyonnaise salad mentioned above are like jerky nuggets. A Cobb salad ($12) with wispy greens in a creamy dressing, slices of luncheon meat and halved cherry tomatoes just isn’t a Cobb salad. You need angular chunks of yumminess to fold with the blue cheese crumbles to get that Cobb goodness.
Taft’s kitchen can also go too gently on seasoning. That chicken with potato dumplings so needed salt and pepper to distinguish it from its soupy base; same goes for a fat “farm house burger” ($10), lost and mushy in bun with a bleeding, unseasoned egg and strips of bacon. A harder sear on that burger and a little salt in the right places would do wonders.
That said, Taft and his kitchen can always be counted on to treat their ingredients with respect. I really like his gently seared redfish ($17) topped with crayfish and set over a “Louisiana hash” with small cubes of tasso ham contributing pops of flavor. Also great is a hanger steak ($19) served with creamer potatoes that were steamed, smashed and then fried to a surface crisp. With creamed collards sharing the plate, this dish projected real personality.
I actually like lunch better, where the bistro format gives way to a modified meat-and-two. The house rolls – a warm, yeasty bun that seems like equal parts biscuit, Parker House roll and cornbread — turn hugely addictive in context, particularly when you smear them with sweet sorghum/molasses whipped butter. There’s both a daily changing menu of Southern faves and a standing menu of burgers, salads and sandwiches. Depending on the day, your choices might include fried chicken livers (mild, not bitter, super crispy), turkey and dressing, country fried steak and – well – hungry yet?
The kitchen puts out some seriously good vegetables, including green beans cooked to pork-soaked submission, great braised greens and the kind of mac and cheese that seems cheesier than, well, cheese. This plainspoken food has the kind of gutsiness that sometimes lacks elsewhere on the menu.
The ace in the hole here is pastry chef Karie Brown, a young lady whom I suspect we’ll be hearing more about with time. Her banana pudding in a mason jar ($6) tastes of real old-fashioned boiled custard and will put you at your grandma’s table until you taste the buried wafers soaked in Woodford Reserve bourbon. Her pumpkin creme brulee comes just barely warm, and sweetened with a cautious hand. You taste spice, cream, egg and pumpkin, not sugar. Her flavors are truly dynamic.
If a little more of this dynamism can find its way to the savory menus and energize the dishes that seem like placeholders, the Chicken and the Egg will deserve a higher spot in the pecking order of Southern farm-to-table restaurants. Taft cooks with real care; when he finds a stronger vein of passion, this Chicken will be worth crossing the road and the city for.CHICKEN AND THE EGG