Let’s get this out of the way now: Despite what you may have heard, Proof and Provision is not a “speakeasy.”
Simply being in a basement and emphasizing craft cocktails doesn’t a gimmick make. There is no secret entrance, no special code, and no feigned time-warp to the prohibition era.
Instead, Executive Chef Zeb Stevenson transformed the old Basta space in the lower level of the Georgian Terrace into the basement lounge that every bartender wished they had. Slightly fogged windows set into the exposed brick walls look onto Ponce, lending an unexpected brightness to the otherwise darkened bar. Despite the concrete floors, the sound level stays in check, making this a surprisingly cozy spot for conversation, except during the most hectic post-Fox theater rush.
After developing his craft behind the stick at spots like P’Cheen and Top Flr, head bartender Nate Shuman joined the team at upstairs at The Livingston in the fall of 2011. A creative and passionate mixologist, his arrival marked the beginning of a transformation of the cocktail program there. But, compared to its sleeker sibling upstairs, P&P seems to be a more fitting playground for Shuman to work in.
If given the chance on a slow night, chat with Shuman about his craft and you’ll find his enthusiasm infectious. Don’t be afraid to order up a bartender’s choice – my sense of adventure rewarded me with a concoction of rye whiskey, mescal, and spicy bitters that left a burn on my tongue and smoke on my breath. But any Manhattan drinker wanting to stick to the menu shouldn’t skip the Firm Handshake ($10), a booze-forward blend of Redemption Rye, fernet, sugar, and bitters.
Speaking of which, I’m counting the days until Shuman’s next batch of barrel-aged Rye Manhattan ($9) makes the rounds. For the uninitiated, P&P is one of a few bars to use this technique, where a pre-mixed cocktail takes a 6-week soak in oak barrels, melding the flavors while infusing additional caramel and smoke. If that isn’t available, hope that the Maximilian Affair ($10) remains in stock and enjoy the thick, smoky blend of tequila, aperitifs, and bitters.
Don’t let the unfamiliar hue of the hockey puck-sized ice cube in your Uncle Val’s Basement ($12) throw you off either. That yellow tinge comes from the infusion of lemon zest into the ice to compliment the complex citrus and herbal notes given to this gin drink from the Aperol, Cochhi Americano, and Barolo Chinato.
If Shuman’s cocktail program shoots for the surprising or exotic, Stevenson’s menu balances it with a supporting cast of slightly tweaked and enriched familiar flavors.
Dishes range from snacks and sandwiches up to French bread pizzas, the closest thing to an entrée on the menu, and nearly all are well-suited for sharing. The show stealer for me is certainly the light but flavorful chicken liver mousse with peach jelly ($3), served with rounds of toasted bread.
The familiar flavor of Deviled Eggs ($3) surprises next to the light texture of Stevenson’s bacon-dusted foam yolk filling, though the gelatinous jiggle as you bring the egg to your mouth may give some diners pause.
To classify Stevenson’s menu as “drunk food” would be demeaning and diminutive, but it does capture the spirit of many of his dishes. Perhaps “drunk food done well” is more accurate. Who doesn’t want to, after downing their share of spirits, munch on the buttery mix of Fontina, Pecorino, and truffle butter in Chef Z’s Grilled Cheese ($7)? And I don’t recall ever microwaving a French bread pizza as satisfying as the spinach, artichoke, and Asiago topped Harold’s Revenge ($9).
Alas, a few dishes arrive under seasoned or otherwise underwhelming, like my “English Breakfast” ($7). I’m ecstatic to try the McMuffin-style crumpet sandwich topped with egg and black pudding, only to find the blood sausage lacking the depth of flavor I expect. And I hoped for more from the shaved prime rib sandwich ($7), essentially a bland gruyere topped cheesesteak whose only saving grace is a long soak in the accompanying jus.
Pervading Proof & Provision is a sense that no one is taking themselves too seriously – refreshing among the current uptick of craft cocktail-centric eateries in town. And while there are others that are more ambitious in their menus, I realize that Stevenson saves the Hail Marys for the dining room upstairs. So, any complaints of the food are minor in the context of what he is trying to accomplish.
And he has accomplished what he set out to do: Create a comfortable, no-nonsense spot for locals and theater-goers to enjoy a sip of something different and a bite of something familiar. I’ll drink to that.PROOF AND PROVISION 659 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, 404-373-5507