When Bacchanalia’s Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison first opened Abattoir in 2009, many bloggers and writers mistakenly spelled the name “Abbatoir.” I’m not sure what made me more squeamish: a restaurant that went by the French word for “slaughterhouse” or the thought of a chamber where you’re forced to listen to “Dancing Queen” over and over.
Set in the White Provision space that was indeed part of a massive meat processing plant back in the day, Abattoir opened then with a “whole animal” spin on the menu. It seemed like it would develop into a Westside answer to Holeman & Finch Public House — the influential Restaurant Eugene spinoff that first plumbed the viscera of whole-animal cookery in Atlanta. But Holeman & Finch was (and is) a bar — an honest-to-badness joint where you want to eat head cheese and hamburgers and have one or two more cocktails than you should.
Abattoir wasn’t that. The menu, under talented opening chef and partner Joshua Hopkins, did feature tripe stew, lamb liver fritters and other odd bits in a format that encouraged the passing and sharing of small plates. But it also had a cool elegance about it, all market-fresh ingredients and gentle flavors. The industrial-chic dining room with its pretty appointments under a massive pitched roof underscored the schism.
Despite its bloodthirsty come-on, Abattoir was never a place to snarf up salami with your fingers; it was a place to dine. I’ve been to this restaurant a dozen or more times, and while I’ve applauded its aesthetic sense, I’ve never felt a strong personality emerge.
Chef Tyler Williams, on board since January, cooks lusty, intriguing dishes with a manifest point of view. Under his watch, Abattoir has become less of a tasteful farm-to-table dining hall with a butchery jones and more of a spirited American brasserie. It feels more integrated, more fun. There’s more there there.
Williams brings all kind of international seasonings to his cooking and he knows how to use them to layer flavor. His Thai-inspired dishes hopscotch with chile and aromatics; his Indian ones unfurl their spice from that all-important base of browned onion.
He really gets umami — that primary taste of savoriness. Umami-rich appetizers include a don’t-miss dish of spicy veal sweetbreads with cabbage, pear and beef bacon ($14). The nuggets of meat are exemplary, with a crisp surface and creamy center. But the dark wash of sauce distinguishes this dish. It fills your mouth with an expansive flavor, spicy like a bee sting until the sweet, salty and umami flavors take your tongue for a spin, inviting everything on the plate to the dance. This elixir includes soy sauce, fish sauce and a hot sauce made from ghost peppers grown by sous chef Brett Ashcroft. I want to drink it.
Also memorable: a beet-red tartare of local beef ($12) prepared in the style of the Korean dish yukke, with bits of jalapeño, pine nuts and Asian pear. A perfectly pitched base line of sweet soy tunes every high note of flavor into harmony.
It isn’t all a tribute to Buford Highway here. Witness the gorgeous puff pastry cup (a classic French vol-au-vent) overflowing with tender little snails in a wild-mushroom cream sauce ($14). Williams can rock it old school.
Then again, I find the Asian flavors on this menu have the most to say. A whole goo-centered burrata cheese ($12) arrives over crostini with radishes and asparagus for a nicely forgettable taste of spring. And a firm and fairly flavorless blood sausage ($10) cut into lengths over a vivid spinach puree brings the kind of tame offal I’ve learned to expect from Abattoir. (It has none of the rich depth of a French boudin noir.) But those Korean sticky fries ($8.50) showered with kimchi and marinated beef bulgogi (Korean barbecue meat) get more snarftastic with each bite. I have my new guilty pleasure bar food.
After these rich appetizers, I’m more than happy to dig into a lovely take on Chinese duck soup ($22), with tender duck meatballs, pan-seared potato gnocchi and bok choy in a limpid (if a bit oversalted) consommé.
I love the umami-bomb flavors of the pork belly ($18) served with a weirdly winning pâté sauce and a pickled vegetable salad jumping with the brightness of kaffir lime leaf and ginger. This is the work of a chef who sees the big flavor picture. Alas, I can’t quite deal with the hard jiggle of that seared hunk of fat. A longer cure, a braise, a sous-vide spin in an immersion circulator — something needs to be done to this porky blubber.
Likewise, a limp-skinned trout fillet ($24) over a thick glob of celery root and dandelion greens in a pasty-thick Meyer lemon cream sauce gets higher marks for flavor than execution. The best entree may be the simplest: a tender hanger steak ($24) with bordelaise sauce and pommes frites, trailing the perfume of wood smoke.
As before, the well-edited wine list offers just enough choice with a welcome focus on budget-priced bottles. The L’Arco Valpolicella (a steal at $31) has the acidity to go with food and soft flavors I always enjoy. (I do wish this place would get over the stemless wine glass thing.) You can also choose from a dozen good beers and a smattering of house cocktails.
The desserts I’ve tried rely on a bit too much sugar for my taste. That’s true of an apple tarte tatin ($8), though the slivers of apple are so deeply caramelized and a thyme sorbet adds such a nice herbal twang that it stays in check.
The menu — with nearly 50 distinct snacks, sides, appetizers and entrees — might benefit from a little editing. That whole “whatever you want, whatever your mood” approach works better for simpler and/or cheaper fare.
This new spirit in Tyler Williams’ kitchen has given the restaurant a focus it lacked before, and I’d love to see it continue evolving.
Mamma Mia! Abattoir’s singing a new song.ABATTOIR 1170 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, 404-892-3335 Food: Eclectic American fare that’s less “meat-centric” than the name would imply. Service: Attentive and quick with recommendations; kitchen can be a bit slow getting food to the table at times. Best dishes: Spicy veal sweetbreads, beef tartare, duck soup, apple tarte tatin Vegetarian selections: Quite a few, despite the slaughterhouse moniker. Credit cards: All major cards accepted. Hours: 6-11 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays. Children: Fine for older kids; little ones won’t deal well with the noise. Parking: Both self-parking and valet parking. Reservations: Yes. Wheelchair access: Yes, but you need to find the elevator elsewhere in the retail complex. Smoking: No. Noise level: Lively in the bar, clamorous in the dining room. Patio: Yes, a great one Takeout: Yes