I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to be a chef in this town.
Not because of anything to do with the diners in this town, but my heart goes out to anyone who knocks off work at midnight on a Tuesday in Atlanta with an empty belly.
With a few exceptions, late-night dining choices often consist of little more than a few drive-thrus or your neighborhood Waffle House. While those certainly can do in a pinch, especially a drunken one, finding a meal worth remembering in the wee hours is a daunting task.
Well, restaurant industry types, night owls, and famished partiers in East Atlanta have one less thing to complain about. Nhan Le, owner of So Ba Vietnamese restaurant in EAV, has teamed up with former Miller Union chef Angus Brown to create a late-night dining destination unlike any other in town. This culinary odd couple revamped the patio at So Ba as Octopus Bar, serving a completely different menu catering to adventurous late-night diners and restaurant staff looking for a decent plate of food after their shift.
Simply walking into Octopus Bar gives a jolt of satisfaction, as if you know something the rest of Atlanta hasn’t caught on to yet. There is no signage luring diners in off the street, no website to link to, and no phone number to call their own. Open six nights a week from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., the semi-indoor patio adorned with street art perfectly fits the diverse and often left-of-center crowd, making it one of the more unique restaurant atmospheres in Atlanta.
Brown and Le’s menu begs to be shared with friends, consisting mostly of small plates and a few “family style” dishes. The selection is seafood heavy, with shellfish like uni (sea urchin), shrimp, lobster, and oysters dominating the menu. While occasionally Vietnamese inspired, Brown and Le construct a menu of frequently changing dishes that often defy classification.
Where else in Atlanta can you chat over a steaming bowl of sea urchin pasta ($14) at 2 a.m.? Both subtle and decadent, the house-made fettuccine tossed with salty pancetta and heady hunks of velvety uni must be tasted to be believed. While the squeamish or those uninitiated with uni may struggle with this one, fans will likely remember this dish above all others.
Don’t you dare peel the shells from the salt and pepper shrimp ($8), deep-fried whole and sautéed in a light coat of chili and jalapeño. The crackle of shell and salty burst of flavor as you crunch through the first head will soon have you gnawing the tail and licking your fingers. Despite being uncomfortably full, I order an unrealistic second helping of these and still leave a bowl of decapitated shrimp in my wake. The heads are simply too tasty to waste.
Larger groups should take advantage of their numbers and clear space for at least one of the family style dishes. Both the daeiji bulgolgi ($22), crispy strips of spicy Korean marinated pork served with a delightful house-made kimchi, and the fried whole flounder ($30) swimming in ginger sauce make for excellent centerpieces. Also perfect for sharing, be sure to order extra grilled bread for the savory coconut milk broth pooled beneath the mussels ($10), for below the surface surely lurks the few remaining chunks of braised pork belly. I recall one broth-soaked bite in particular that may have been the single best of all of my meals here.
Brown and Le certainly take risks with their menu, giving the food an edgy playfulness, but inevitably not all of them succeed. The hot dog ($5) served simply with German mustard stands up just fine on its own, but on a table swarmed with exciting dishes like the uni fettuccine and the buttery Maine lobster roll ($14) it looks like a waste of precious real estate.
Though the drink menu isn’t the deepest in town, Octopus Bar sports a few impressive cocktails that should not be missed. My whiskey weakness immediately drew me to the Villager ($9) more than once, but it was the Green Gorilla ($12), a subdued concoction of absinthe, citrus, and vermouth, that impressed me the most.
It would be easy to chalk up Octopus Bar as simply an “industry spot” or an oasis in an otherwise desolate late night dining landscape, but the inventiveness and flavors of Brown and Le’s food thrusts them out of any niche. Do yourself a favor: tide yourself over with a snack, stay up past your bedtime, and make your way down to East Atlanta in a hurry.OCTOPUS BAR