“Was the food hot? How was the service? What did you think of the fried green tomatoes?”
These are just a few in a string of questions posed by chef Nicholas St. Clair in our pre-print interview. As the owner of the five-month-old, farm-to-table restaurant Antebellum in Flowery Branch, this chef-turned-business-owner genuinely wants feedback on ways to improve customers’ experiences. It shows.
St. Clair relocated to Atlanta after beginning his career in West Coast restaurants. The move, designed to land St. Clair and his wife closer to her family, afforded St. Clair experience in the kitchens of popular Atlanta restaurants including Watershed and Woodfire Grill. He now had the confidence to open a restaurant of his own.
More of a small-town person, St. Clair scouted locations in less populated areas outside of Atlanta and in Alabama. He claimed the classically Southern 1890’s home in Flowery Branch, complete with a wraparound porch, which became Antebellum.
There’s a certain danger in opening a Southern farm-to-table restaurant in an older home decorated with oversized prints of Charleston’s plantations and architectural details. With beverages served in Mason jars and the obligatory fried green tomatoes gracing the menu, how quickly it can all become cliche. Yet, with glowing lanterns scattered about the dining room, a 72-year-old jazz guitarist strumming tunes and St. Clair and his wife chatting at each table, Antebellum has developed its own unique personality.
The real character of Antebellum can be found in St. Clair’s food. This non-native’s take on Southern-inspired cuisine reveals his expert hand at seasoning and in layering textures and flavors. His execution is so smooth that a recent line cook loss is unapparent.
After hearing multiple tables comment on Antebellum’s fried green tomatoes ($11), we requested two orders to pass around our party. The vertical stack of cornmeal-battered tomatoes, layered with a sweet bacon-y jam and toasty rounds of buttered brioche, comes topped with a fried egg, waiting to yield its silky yolk to the assemblage. The dish includes a shot of shaved mimosa-flavored ice, a fun little gift from the kitchen. Should’ve ordered three.
All of our appetizers hit their mark. The sausage and chicken dish ($12) offers a balanced combination of textures and flavors with smoky Louisiana Andouille paired with with a thick-crusted buttermilk-fried chicken. A little spice comes into play with the creamy Cajun remoulade and house-made green tomato chow chow. This same moist chicken can also be found on the Watershed-inspired Thursday fried chicken night ($15).
If the salads catch your eye, go for the local farm greens mingled with a simple pimento cheese, thin ribbons of celery, a boiled egg and cumin spiced pecans ($10). Wait until you try it with the cream-based boiled dressing, so light and tangy.
While successful appetizers don’t necessarily guarantee a home run with entrees, here they do. Try the grilled wild salmon ($20), so well seasoned with a nice sear and soft interior. It’s the crispy Logan Turnpike cheddar and buttermilk grits cake and the slurpable smoked tomato vinaigrette that will cement the dish in your memory.
The flavor of the dry-aged ribeye ($28) easily competes with many of Atlanta’s favorite intown steakhouses. The high-choice beef is well marbled, cooked to temperature and properly seasoned with only salt and pepper (but the added dollop of crawfish butter definitely makes for good company).
We also ordered the mustard-and-rye crusted Niman Ranch pork chop ($22) after hearing another patron exclaim, “I want to take a bath in the beer cheese!” The juicy chop comes layered in a bowl with bits of bacon, potatoes and a smooth beer cheese soup rich enough to merit the proclamation.
Now isn’t the time to start counting calories. Order the maple pot de creme with “trail mix” ($6). The delicate flavors of the maple-flavored custard play nicely with the sugared pecans and tiny crisped sweet potatoes. You might also order the sweet potato soup appetizer ($6), which leans toward the sweet side with apple cider cream, brown sugar and pie spices like cloves, allspice and nutmeg. Fried strips of collards on top put me in mind of fried pie.
I’ll be the first to admit that Flowery Branch is a bit of a haul. But I have no reservations about sending you on that drive. This chef has skill and a desire to grow, which has catapulted him to the top of his game. There’s no question that Antebellum will only improve with age.ANTEBELLUM
Food: Contemporary Southern