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The Optimist restaurant review, Atlanta

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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.

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.

A fillet of real Gulf red snapper ($25) arrives in a tart, citrusy butter with segments of lemon and grapefruit.(Photos by Becky Stein / Special)

A fillet of real Gulf red snapper ($25) arrives in a tart, citrusy butter with segments of lemon and grapefruit.(Photos by Becky Stein / Special)

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.

A half-pound of peel-and-eat white shrimp ($11) is better than any steakhouse shrimp cocktail.

A half-pound of peel-and-eat white shrimp ($11) is better than any steakhouse shrimp cocktail.

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 blog

THE OPTIMIST
914 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta 404-477-6260

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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
ratings_key_febUSE

24 comments Add your comment

Baltisraul

July 5th, 2012
7:01 am

Now that we have a little red snapper available, I know where to go! It has been a long time since we had red on any menu.

Fact

July 5th, 2012
8:26 am

Smith Hanes is not an architect or designer, he is a decorator.

GadgetGeek

July 5th, 2012
10:36 am

Good review John, thanks for all you do.

PapaDoc

July 5th, 2012
11:37 am

Went there for lunch a few weeks back. Oysters were great but am trying to get over paying for three as opposed to a dozen or two. Gumbo was amazing and a definite go-to. Snapper was excellent well presented. A good place to go but cavernous room echoes where I was seated, making conversation problematic..
Great review John. What would it take to move it to four stars?

bettyjoan

July 5th, 2012
12:32 pm

John, you read my mind about dessert – we ordered both the Pop-Tart and the grapefruit tart and were disappointed by both for the precise reasons you cited. On one hand, I know the pastry chef has chops and I hope for a better experience next time. On the other hand, perhaps I will spend that money on some more oysters.

SP

July 5th, 2012
12:54 pm

Sounds delicious but out of my budget. :(

Ted

July 5th, 2012
1:57 pm

My first (and probably last) dinner at the Optimist last night was very disappointing. We had reservations for 5 for 7:30. The first and biggest complaint is that the noise level is overwhelming. You cannot have a conversation with your tablemates unless you shout. I realize that “energetic” restaurants are trendy but this was the noisiest restaurant I have ever visited. My voice was hoarse by the time we left from shouting above the ambient noise and the music.
The service was poor. We were seated after 8 for a 7:30 reservation. Then for 20 minutes we were totally ignored until we finally grabbed a waiter who turned out to be a trainee. He got us water and then disappeared. Five minutes later another waiter showed up and immediately started explaining the specials without asking about drinks. So it was a good 35 to 40 minutes before we got drinks. After that the service improved but there was no attempt to apologize for the bad start.
The food was average at best. Oysters on the half shell were good but the mignonette was warm not chilled and much to vinegary. I ordered the scallops and they were okay but I have to say $22 for 3 scallops and nothing else is pricy. None of my tablemates was impressed with their dinners either. The halibut in particular was overcooked and bland.
I would give this restaurant a C at best. There are much better restaurants in West Midtown than this–Bocado, Miller Union, and JCT Kitchen.

Dougie

July 5th, 2012
3:45 pm

Ted, did you just copy-and-paste your Yelp review of the restaurant from last week here? You’ve got a real axe to grind, sounds like.

John and bettyjoan, what was texture of your grapefruit tart like there? Once i went and it was gooey and almost runny, but the other time I went it was fimer and more custardy almost like key lime pie or something, I defnitely preferred the latter.

guest

July 6th, 2012
8:15 am

At those prices, “the dining room” seems like a more suitable title than “fish camp”

kiki

July 6th, 2012
10:13 am

I’ve been twice – once for drinks in the oyster bar and once for lunch. The oyster bar was great, especially tucked away in the corner away from the din of the dining room. Our server was very attentive and our drinks and appetizers came out quickly. The oysters of the day were fabulous and the mussels were deliciously spicy, although a little overcooked for my taste.
Lunch, on the other hand, had some challenges. I started w/ the little gems salad, which was good but had a little too much dressing, making it a bit gloppy. My dining partner had the she crab soup which she enjoyed very much. The accompanying crab toasts were wonderful. For my main I chose the blackened red fish sandwich w/ a vinegar cole slaw and fries. The sandwich was awful, mostly owing to the slaw which tasted bitter and horrible. The slaw was also the culprit in making the bread very soggy, not an appetizing combination. My friend ordered the lobster roll which was good (a la JCT), although a bit on the small side. Both were served w/ a mountain of shoestring fries which were fine. Service was very good and it wasn’t too loud since it was a mid-week lunchtime. Despite the fish sandwich, I’ll definitely go back. The punches served in the oyster bar are reason alone!!

Ted

July 6th, 2012
1:23 pm

Yes I did Dougie. No point in rewriting it. No ax to grind just a disappointing meal. Courteously, The Optimist offered my party a free dinner to make up for the first disappointing experience.

Robert

July 6th, 2012
1:30 pm

I am willing to give the place one more shot, but my first visit was distinctly underwhelming. There were elements of good food present, but the overall experience was really mediocre. I am not opposed to paying higher-than-average prices for top notch food and service, but in all honesty it was top tier prices for mediocre food and really poor service. And my goodness, the wine list absolutely sucked, IMO.

I am not as enthusiastic as the reviewer about this one, but I do plan to give it another try. With my own bottle of wine in tow.

Glen

July 6th, 2012
3:31 pm

My girlfriend and I had dinner there a few weeks ago. The food was fine, but it was not compelling enough to make us want to go back anytime soon. Neither of our meals were outstanding, and for the price we paid I expected a higher quality meal. The space is very nice, but as another reviewer noted, it is very loud which makes it difficult to hear. For the price, there are several other restuarants we prefer.

Cahill

July 6th, 2012
5:55 pm

I usually like Ford Fry’s restaurants but my dinner at The Optimist was awful. Two weeks ago, we sat at the dining room bar where they serve the full menu. Yet, the wait staff acted like they worked in a club. They couldn’t be bothered to tell us about the menu, take our order or check on us during the meal. When the food finally came out, it was mediocre and salty. For those prices, I’d rather eat at Miller Union any day.

Disappointed

July 7th, 2012
8:16 am

I agree on the bad service. We purposely went on a Tuesday night to avoid the weekend crowd and sat for a good 20 minutes before anyone took our drink order and then another 10 minutes to get a drink. One can only stair at a menu for so long.
My mother said her fried oysters were the best she ever had. My skate wing was terrible. Nothing sautéd about it, just over-fried with some mush in the middle that I presumed to be the fish. I am a big fan of JCT Kitchen and looked forward to some innovating fish dishes but I found the selection boring and had a hard time finding anything that excited me. Part of it was that most everything was over-priced. I don’t mind paying for fine food but I don’t like the sense of feeling ripped off either. I wish they would lean a little more to the rustic ‘fish campish’ side of the menu or perhaps steal some ideas from Lure Fishbar in NYC. Service was so slow we skipped desserts. The atmosphere alone makes me want to go back and have a drink but not so much the food. Maybe next time I’ll give the lunch a try.
Oh and service was so slow we skipped dessert.

A.S.

July 7th, 2012
8:54 am

Jon,

I think your reviews would be more meaningful if you discussed your experience with the service. You write a whole essay about the food and have a sentence about your experience with the service.

S.O.

July 7th, 2012
11:33 am

After Jon’s great review I was going to take my wife there tonight. After reading the comments from the “real world” I will look elsewhere!

Street

July 7th, 2012
12:06 pm

I went to the Optimist the first week it opened. Fairly, reminiscent of JCT down to the similar napkins. It is a cool spot with the indoor/outdoor dining atmosphere. The service that I had was very good, as a few others mentioned there was some lag between courses but nothing terrible. As for the food I ordered 2 apps, 2 entrees, and 2 desserts. The tart with the mimosa reduction was one of them as well as the doughnuts with the corn ice cream. The doughnuts were nothing special but the ice cream really was a nice addition that enhanced the doughnuts. The tart was a touch too runny but had very nice flavors and the mimosa reduction really was very good.
The apps were average, the pickled mushrooms were grilled and not very pickled an lacked salt. The app escapes me at the moment but was much better.
I remember the black cod had nice flavor but was small. The fish was very buttery but wasn’t quite done in the middle. It also was a big piece of pancetta served with it which I felt detracted from a delicate piece of fish. The lemon salad on top, however, went well with the fish.

Overall, I would repeat as it does have a fun atmosphere and the food was above average. After they work out some of the opening kinks I’m sure the food will be more consistent. The plus is that there are not any places that focus on seafood like this in the area. Of course you can find seafood dishes at some other places but at the Optimist really gives a nice opportunity to have a variety of fish that may only be served sporadically elsewhere.

Truth

July 7th, 2012
12:20 pm

S.O. – maybe you should develop your own opinion instead of listening to these whiny, pretentious windbags? a restaurant of this size will no doubt serve thousands of people a week and you choose to listen to a few with bad experiences?

K_10

July 9th, 2012
11:01 am

@ Street, thanks for the head’s up about the napkins. I stopped going to JCT Kitchen because of those darn dish rags. Sick and tired of getting lint droppings all over a freshly dry-cleaned garmet.

Ok, well, I also stopped going because of the hit-and-miss food and consistently poor service. Sounds like The Optimist suffers from the same issues.

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Dougie

July 9th, 2012
11:57 pm

When I went the host was kind enough to ask my wife if she preferred a black linen to the white one because she had on a dark dress, so i guess all you have to do is ask and they seem more than happy to accommodate and be hospitable. Easier for some to complain online later than ask at the time i guess.

VickiF

July 11th, 2012
7:59 am

I agree about the salt, it’s way over the top. We had delicious drinks, sat at the bar to eat, had great peel and eat shrimp and salad, and then my entree had a very overcooked and gummy horrid fish fliet on it. Dessert was two frozen pops that were overly sweet and made you long for King of Pops. So it started well, but then didn’t finish well. Maybe they need time? I hope they cut down the salt.
We had a nice server at the bar.

stuart

July 11th, 2012
11:20 am

i went here two saturdays ago an i must say i had the worst service of any restaurant i have ever eaten in in atlanta in 35 years. the waiter was rude and gave no help on the menu. food was above average but this waiter ruined anything good to say about this place.