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Cakes & Ale/The Bakery at Cakes & Ale restaurant reviews, Decatur

$$$-$$$$ (Restaurant)

$$$-$$$$ (Restaurant)

When Cakes & Ale opened about four years ago, I enjoyed it for the neighborhood spot it was. The decor seemed cobbled together from thrift-store furniture and a good sense of lighting, the menu righteous for its eco-friendly chalkboard format and reliance on local product. Some dishes were great and others more appealing for their earnestness than flavor.

$$-$$$ (Bakery)

$$ (Bakery)

It kept getting better. I found the bar a great spot to belly up to for casual dining, and I found dishes to obsess over: a cone of fried oysters, a vinegary salad topped with lamb’s tongue, a bowl of buttery farro and vegetables, a knobby hamburger served on a homemade English muffin. The items I loved always came off the menu to make room for ingredients coming into season and into the marketplace. With each iteration of the menu, chef-owner Billy Allin had something new to say. His point of view evolved, slowly and surely.

It was big news when Allin (along with his wife and business partner, Kristin) moved Cakes & Ale to a larger space on Decatur Square last summer and opened a bakery in the adjacent storefront. I wasted no time covering it, both in our recent fall dining guide and in a story about the maturation of the Decatur restaurant scene. But I never did review the restaurant.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

So let me cut to the chase: With the move, Cakes & Ale has taken a tremendous step forward and now counts among the handful of top Atlanta dining destinations. The restaurant no longer seems a work in progress. It’s here. More than just about any spot in the metro area, it celebrates local produce. Though far from vegetarian, the menu lets vegetables in season call the shots and determine the flavors in nearly every dish. It’s a Southern restaurant inasmuch as the menu feels deeply tied to place, but Allin’s seasonings and cooking ideas range broadly.

The bakery is a different beast, with a different menu and guiding spirit. Bakers Brooke Lenderman and Melanie Durant oversee an ambitious program that runs from morning coffee cake to ciabatta and baguettes from the wood-burning oven, to late-night cakes and tarts. Their work has improved since opening, yet I find the bakery is still figuring out its personality and house specialties. One major asset is chef David Sweeney, hired to prepare quick, healthy lunches for folks who want more than a slice of pound cake. His cooking — precise, layered, visually engaging — appeals to me, though I know the gentle portions and simple approach to seasoning aren’t for everyone.

The bakery counter (all photos by Becky Stein)

The bakery counter (all photos by Becky Stein)

I’ve paid several visits to the restaurant and the bakery since opening. The restaurant serves the most interesting early winter menu I’ve ever seen in Atlanta. Roasted carrot sticks and a swipe of carrot puree ($12) get tangled up with a brisk assortment of purple spinach and kale, pear, pomegranate seeds and coriander. Gorgeous Vermont burrata ($13) — those cream-filled bundles of tender mozzarella — come with a pale green herbed walnut salsa and a chiffonade of curly kale in zippy cranberry vinaigrette. Hot, buttered toasts come on the side, encouraging you to build piles of head-exploding yum. Serious awesomeness here.

Burrata with walnut salsa and kale salad

Burrata with walnut salsa and kale salad

If you like your canapes pre-built, then don’t miss the plate of croutons ($13.50) planked with gossamer sheets of the cured pork fat called lardo and then heaped with meaty roasted chanterelle mushrooms. It’s a bite of pure “wow.” Roasted endive spears and beet cubes come on the side for the natural bittersweet context Allin often favors in his food.

But don’t write this menu off as esoteric because Allin lards it with simple pleasures. You can start with cold-water oysters for the table; try the deeply cupped Shigoku variety ($3 each) from Washington state, my current obsession. There’s also a fine salumi assortment ($12) with preserved eggplant and olives that you’ll want to eat with your fingers between sips of a cocktail. That farro and vegetable bowl I remember from the old location makes an encore performance, now outfitted with a baked egg ($14.50). Get a glass of Bodega Emilio Moro ($13, a rustic Spanish tempranillo) off the ever-changing and always-interesting wine list and eat this with a spoon. You’ll experience an inner peace you’ll never get from Xanax.

Or consider the whole North Carolina trout ($31), crackly skinned from the wood-burning oven, as moist as any fish you’ve eaten and glistening with drawn butter. One waitress on staff serves as the expert fish deboner, and she’ll divest your dinner of its head and spine in a matter of seconds. You should consider sharing this huge critter between two people and outfitting it with sides of roasted broccoli ($5) and quinoa with chard ($5). It’s the only naked protein on the menu.

Lamb loin and belly

Lamb loin and belly

I find it telling that even slices of lean, ruby-red lamb loin ($33) come with such well-tended vegetables that you find your fork wanting to work in tastes of sautéed chard and cubed winter squash with each bite of meat. Still, pinwheels of well-cooked lamb belly on the plate provide that unctuous, carnivorous fix you want from lamb.

I haven’t yet warmed to the dessert program at the new restaurant. A cardamom ice cream sandwich with a pomegranate molasses caramel sauce ($6) makes for an interesting bite, but a clammy slab of flavor-challenged persimmon pudding ($8) seems like the kind of dessert you might love because your grandma made it, but only because your grandma made it. A plate of perfectly forgettable cookies ($9) comes set with precise geometry on a wooden platter. What a way to un-fun cookies.

Nor do I love the stark dining room, set with plain wooden tables on plain wooden floorboards amid neutral shades of gray and brown. Good lighting and a few key pieces of art warm up this cafe-like space, but I far prefer the convivial and visually appealing bar area in a separate room.

A quinoa and beluga lentil bowl from bakery chef David Sweeney

A quinoa and beluga lentil bowl from bakery chef David Sweeney

But the bakery? It’s beautiful. Its brick wall features an old bakery sign with blue and orange lettering that was uncovered during renovation. A classic white marble counter and glass pastry case sets it off. I love coming in here for Sweeney’s simple, clean salads, sandwiches and soups. He makes a soul-satisfying grain bowl, such as the version with quinoa, beluga lentil and an oven-poached egg with pumpkinseed oil ($9). I never tire of his salads, particularly ones where he pits bitter greens like dandelion or arugula against fruit. Now, Sweeney’s outfitting dandelion with beet, apple, walnuts and green onions ($9).

I’m warning you again: His portions aren’t huge. If you can’t decide between two items, get them both. Sweeney is a notable chef in his own right.

The baked goods do keep getting better since the first weeks when dry cakes and blackened loaves of bread weren’t uncommon. Now you can get a moist slice of hummingbird cake ($8), a tiny but crusty baguette ($3.75), a fat and buttery croissant ($2.50) and all kinds of cookies, coffee cake and bundt cake. Espresso drinks are notably good.

But I have to say I don’t quite get this bakery. The choices are broad but shallow in each category. Some cookies are fancy-fancy iced items; others are homey blobs. The cellophane-wrapped goodies on the counter never look like they’re worth the $4 or $5 asking price. This bakery can’t yet decide whether it’s rustic or uptown, whether it’s Mayberry or the 16th arrondissement of Paris.

But I have no doubt it will grow organically and find its calling, much like the restaurant did. I see it improving with each visit. That’s the Cakes & Ale way.

CAKES & ALE/THE BAKERY AT CAKES & ALE
155 Sycamore St., Decatur, 404-377-7994 (restaurant); 404-377-7960 (bakery)
Food: Vegetable-driven cuisine with a sense of place.
Service: Skilled in the intricacies of fish-boning and wine recommendation; the kitchen sometimes lags between appetizers and entrees.
Best dishes: Menu changes often, but if you see burrata with walnut salsa and kale, you want it.
Vegetarian selections: many, and many near-vegetarian dishes as well
Credit cards: all major
Hours: Restaurant and bar: 6-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Drinks and dessert until midnight on weekends. Sunday supper (first Sunday of month): 5-9 p.m. Bakery: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.
Children: Restaurant is fine for older, well-behaved kids who like to try new things; bakery is no problem.
Parking: In nearby paid lots and on-street, but allow a few minutes to your timetable.
Reservations: Yes, but plenty of spots retained for walk-in customers around the communal table and in the pleasant bar area.
Wheelchair access: full
Smoking: no
Noise level: lively
Patio: yes
Takeout: yes

ratings_key_febUSE

32 comments Add your comment

Kirk

December 22nd, 2011
7:50 am

I’m putting this on my list and checking it out twice.

but

December 22nd, 2011
8:34 am

THERE ARE NO MORE PHATTY CAKES!! what’s the point, then?

kevin

December 22nd, 2011
8:52 am

Great place!

FM Fats

December 22nd, 2011
9:12 am

Most expensive cup of soup I’ve ever had was at the bakery.

Tim

December 22nd, 2011
9:20 am

The bakery is definitely evolving. I’m a local Decaturite. I love buying fresh bread. When the place first opened, they often didn’t have fresh bread for sale. (a bakery??) They often had old bread on display or told me the bread wouldn’t be out until 11am. I was really disappointed and stopped going. I went back this past weekend and loe and behold they actually had fresh bread available. (thier bread is great!) It would be nice if they could expand thier baked goods takeout counter. Also, it would be nice if they were open on Sundays.

Coffee Tawk

December 22nd, 2011
9:21 am

I was hoping against hope, for once, to read a review of this place without the words “phatty cakes” appearing anywhere. Those words are like fingernails on a chalk board and appeared in every review, ad nauseum, for years. I got to the end of the review, and, just when I thought it was safe, BAM! a commenter named “but” had to ruin everything. Thanks, but-head.

HotlantaHobo

December 22nd, 2011
9:25 am

This sounds interesting enough, but I noticed that bowl of cooked wheat and veg along with the suggested glass of sherry will run $34 when tax and tip are added. I think I’d need the Xanax when the bill was delivered. Also, a reality check.

Hossa

December 22nd, 2011
9:30 am

Pretentious, over priced, and over rated. Don’t waste your time on this place.

quick work break

December 22nd, 2011
9:51 am

Been several times at the old location, including a fun dinner at the bar on the last night in that space. The new space will take getting used to. It’s a bit too loud and clearly not as cozy. The food is still quite good. Not cheap by a long shot, but proportional to the quality.

Ed

December 22nd, 2011
9:52 am

While not bad in any way, I can find equally good and creative fare at several more places that are less expensive and more comfortable. Sorry, but C&A just isn’t a “must go” place for me.

innerjuju

December 22nd, 2011
11:05 am

@Hossa is so right. I have eaten in pretentious restaurants all over the world but C&A ranks right up there among them! I could barely find anything on the menu worth ordering. When the food came it did not live up to the hype nor the price. We won’t be returning.

RK

December 22nd, 2011
11:25 am

I’m really shocked by those prices; trout for $31?

John Kessler

December 22nd, 2011
11:44 am

RK – It’s a nearly 2-lb. trout — quite enough for two or even three, and they’ll let you know that. I’ve never had better.

KMan

December 22nd, 2011
2:56 pm

I no longer live in Atlanta, but travel extensively, and have occasion to be in Atlanta from time-to-time, and whether the old or new location I’ve always made it a point to visit C&A – excellent place. If you want cheap, go cheap, but if you want quality, visit C&A – not cheap, neither in terms of dollars or the quality.

Keith F

December 22nd, 2011
3:28 pm

Ed–I am curious, and would give more weight to your opinion, if you would share the places you’ve found that are “equally good and creative…that are less expensive and more comfortable. I’m a fan of C&A and would love to have something on par with lower costs.

CB

December 22nd, 2011
4:09 pm

Agreed with some of the comments here. I just haven’t warmed up to this place. It’s too pricey and pretentious for my liking. I liked the old space and the new space looks inviting but I’ve dispensed with it. The whole formula just turns me off. The dinner entrees they generally run out of unless you are there by 7, the ridiculously priced beers and wines, and the miniscule portions – just not a fan. Good luck to them, though.

sean

December 22nd, 2011
4:30 pm

Seriously guys? I have been to C&A multiple times and haven’t found much in the way of pretense. The ingredients are impeccably sourced and I haven’t had a bad dish yet. Ya, its a lil pricey, but not compared to many lesser restauraunts with more pretense. It is one of the best restaurants in ATL. No one notices anonymous commenters… C&A is doing great business non stop for a reason. Glad I won’t have to run into you guys when I am there next time… Have fun at your Buckhead Life spots…

[...] — come with a pale green herbed walnut salsa and a chiffonade of curly kale in zippy … Big Green Egg – Bing News Filed Under: Big Green Egg News Tagged With: Ale/The, Atlanta, Bakery, blog, Cakes, Constitution, [...]

Edward

December 22nd, 2011
5:38 pm

Keith, again I’m not saying C&A is bad, just that in comparison to some other places it is not somewhere I would seek out or make a special trip for given the prices and design. Places like Ecco, Holeman & Finch, Top Flr, Local 3 are those I prefer.

Keith F

December 22nd, 2011
8:54 pm

Thanks Ed. Now I understand better.

james

December 22nd, 2011
11:07 pm

Atlanta has to be the only major city where people talk about prices at restaurants as if every restaurant should charge the same prices. In every industry you’ll find different price points but I don’t hear people say “I like that BMW but I can drive that Hyundai for 20,000 less and still get where I need to go”. Critics do their readers and restaurants a disservice by talking in the negative about pricing because restauranteurs are capitalist too and if they can get a premium price for a premium product they should get it.

Tindustry

December 23rd, 2011
12:08 am

Eddy, Local 3 doesn’t mean local product, H&F was really good when a Mr. Ryan Smith was there, Ecco is solid, but Top Flr is garbage, low down-dirty garbage, they fooled you.

Tindustry

December 23rd, 2011
12:10 am

Oh….. and I think C&A is atl’s lil’ gem.

Weird Complaint

December 23rd, 2011
7:40 am

Great restaurant!! Fantastic food. Need to loose the crappy, uncomfortable, creaky wooden chairs in the front window tables! Please.

Just a little pregnant...

December 23rd, 2011
8:55 am

I give up on even bothering to read the vegetarian selections.

Grasshopper

December 23rd, 2011
9:35 am

You’re right james…

How dare anyone mention prices when they discuss restaurants. And if you’re BMW is really just a Hyundai wiith a new paint job, don’t discuss that either.

Edward

December 23rd, 2011
10:26 am

Tindustry, your opinion would be more appreciated if your delivery wasn’t so immature.

John Kessler

December 23rd, 2011
11:04 am

As a Hyundai owner, I feel obliged to jump in here with a correction. My car is designed as a cheap ripoff of a Lexus, not a BMW.
Oh, wait, I’m supposed to keep this discussion ON track…

Edward

December 23rd, 2011
11:37 am

Now I’m going to show my age and remark that John just reminded me of the old Ford Granada commercials back in the 70s. :-)

eatoutatlanta

December 23rd, 2011
3:13 pm

I was there last year… I do not remember 4 stars….

Think Again

December 24th, 2011
7:41 am

This is another over priced place where the portion is small and the food isn’t good enough to justify it

Baltisraul

December 24th, 2011
12:09 pm

Coffee Tawk……….phatty cakes, phatty cakes, phatty cakes. That may have ruined your day but it made mine!