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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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