When Ford Fry opened JCT. Kitchen & Bar in 2007, he seemed to accomplish the impossible. He took a proven dog of a space — two restaurants had already crashed and burned there — and turned it into a winner. Working with designer Smith Hanes, he took this box of poorly lit square footage with no street visibility and only a train track for company, and showed everyone it could be a destination. The Southern menu had a few gourmet aspirations and the room a kind of “Garden & Gun” sense of farmhouse style, but the restaurant proved easygoing — at heart it remained a fun, loud place to eat fried chicken with your fingers.
Ford and Hanes repeated their feat last year when they transformed the somnambulant Eurasia Bistro in Decatur into the reliably mobbed No. 246, an Italian restaurant serving wood-oven pizzas, pastas and roasted meats. Again, the menu and room were cannily designed to appeal to a food crowd as well as folks who just wanted to knock back cocktails and snarf salami.
Fry, who’s shaping up to be one of metro Atlanta’s top restaurant entrepreneurs, has hired Hanes once again and gone with a seafood theme for his third restaurant. The Optimist opened in the former headquarters of Talmadge Country Hams — a grand, old Westside warehouse with good bone structure and a graceful vaulted ceiling. Named for a kind of sailing dinghy, the Optimist is Fry’s best effort to date; I’d even go so far as to say it’s shaping up to to be Fry’s first great restaurant.
Ford’s sensibility jibes perfectly with the fish-house format, and executive chef Adam Evans cooks with real brio. He knows where to pump up the flavor and where to kick back and admire the piscine goods. Smith, for his part, has outdone himself with the design, which is deceptive in its simplicity but keenly aware of visual focus and human energy. You can relate to fish-camp underpinnings of this restaurant, even as it raises your expectations and then delivers as promised.
I like this restaurant well enough that I want to get the complaints out of the way quickly:
1. It’s expensive — deceptively so. You want some $3 oysters (at least a couple!) before your $9 gumbo, and that $24 chunk of snapper will be lovely but spare. Those tempting $6 sides — roasted beets and apple, smoked fish fried rice with curry, gnocchi with lobster butter, corn-milk hushpuppies — prove necessary. Throw in an $11 drink or two and an $8 chocolate “pop-tart” for dessert, and you’ll find the extra couple of bucks here and there add up.
2. Evans (the former chef at Craftbar) tosses salt and hot peppers around freely, occasionally too freely. I can forgive overseasoning from a bold chef, but you may feel less forgiving if your one shot leaves you gulping for water.
3. The kitchen lags between starters and entrees. Good thing the food comes out reliably well-executed.
4. The room gets hot. Our summer has been weird, so I’m giving the restaurant a bye for now. But I checked the thermostat inside one night when I was about to Google “symptoms of male menopause” on my phone: 83 degrees.
But if you get a seat in one of the half-moon booths near the periphery, this space isn’t too loud at all. Plus, you get a prime view. Guests enter through the side oyster bar — a first-come/first-serve raw bar that serves a limited menu.
The restaurant itself is one big roller rink of a room with the open kitchen at one end and a grand bar stacked heavenward with bottles and glassware. Tables, booths and banquettes are well-spaced, allowing servers and guests to thread here, there and everywhere as they walk about.
The menu steers away from bragging so that the food comes as a discovery. A half-pound of peel-and-eat white shrimp ($11) brings a half-dozen fat babies, luscious and tender, with a Mississippi-style “come back” sauce, a kicked-up Russian dressing. It’s better than any steakhouse shrimp cocktail.
A salad of little gem lettuce heads ($7) with Meyer lemon anchovy dressing and a shower of Parmesan cheese shards is the Caesar salad of dreams, as tangy as it is rich, with gobs of thick dressing slathered on the crunchy crenulations of this fine local lettuce. It must clock in at 1,000 calories, and I don’t care.
Gusty, in-your-face flavors are all over this menu. Mussels ($9) and grassy herbs share a slapping-hot green curry broth spiked with Thai bird chiles. Clams in the shell ($9) swim around with heaps of deeply caramelized shredded pork belly in a porky broth that is hard to ignore, even if its high salt level almost breaks the deal. A little fried clam roll ($9) gets a dash or six of kimchi vinegar that makes your mouth go “pow.”
Then, with equal confidence, chef Evans dials it down. Duck-fat poached swordfish ($24) comes with little more than crisp, colorful rounds of pickled sweet pepper and a disc of crisp pancetta bacon. These mild flavors dance. A fillet of real Gulf red snapper ($25), again open to commercial fishermen, arrives in a tart, citrusy butter with segments of lemon and grapefruit. The acid cuts right to the sweet flavor and sticky texture of this gorgeous fish.
He also goes the extra mile, thinking about the garnishes and add-ons that range from memorable to craveworthy. The frothy she-crab soup ($9) comes with a side of Chinese restaurant-style shrimp toast that steals the show. A rich and wonderful smoked whitefish chowder ($9) arrive with homemade oyster crackers that make you go “awww.” Tender Alaskan halibut in a red wine bordelaise sauce ($26) shares its plate with a cluster of hen of the woods mushrooms roasted so each tiny cap crunches with a woodsy flavor. Yumbolini.
Now, I know what your next question is. Your wife is from (insert Midwestern state here) and doesn’t like fish. Is there anything for her? Yes. From the quartet of wood-roasted critters, we try a very fine portion of lamb rack ($25) served with field peas and roasted tomato. Interestingly, the waitress didn’t ask for a temperature; it arrived textbook medium rare.
You, meanwhile, might consider the whole Georgia trout ($20), deboned and served with its two crispy-skinned fillets folded back into place. Just cut and enjoy how well its flavor cottons to marcona almond and shards of pickled celery.
You’ll find plenty of good wines to bring out the best in this smart dish, even though 40 seems the new 30 here. (I’m talking dollars.) Try the crowd-pleasing Skouras Moscofilero ($40), a Greek wine that offers an appealing combination of stone fruit flavor and a soft, creamy palate, thanks to some aging on the lees.
Maybe desserts need work. Those chocolate pop-tarts look smashing in their silver sleeves but are too dry and crumbly to pretend to the gooey-centered realm of real Pop-tarts. A not-in-the-slightest grapefruity grapefruit tart in a damp crust ($8) had us all passing around bites and scratching our heads. But pastry chef Taria Camerino, who previously ran the Sugar-Coated Radical chocolate shop, has lots of interesting ideas. I’ll look forward to checking her progress here. As everything else seems to be clicking into place, I’m optimistic.
– John Kessler for the AJC Food and More blogTHE OPTIMIST 914 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta 404-477-6260 Food: Seafood, seafood, seafood — and a little meat Service: Excellent; waiters who know their stuff and managers who keep an eagle eye Best dishes: Peel-and-eat shrimp Vegetarian selections: Salads and a large number of beyond-the-ordinary side dishes Credit cards: All major cards accepted Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays. (Oyster bar: 5 p.m.-closing Mondays-Fridays, 3 p.m.-closing, Saturdays-Sundays. Children: Not a problem Parking: Private lot during the day, valet at night Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Lively, but not to the point it impedes conversation Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes