In our Internet-driven age of information saturation, being a critic can be tricky.
To remain completely devoid of preconceptions after reading first-responder blog posts or crowd-sourced reviews often requires conscious effort, which is why I always try to avoid over researching potentially reviewable restaurants. Now more than ever, objectivity is a skill. Walking in the door with inflated expectations is often unfair to the chef, while believing every online nitpicker can make a mediocre meal pleasantly surprising.
When I decided to try Hammocks Trading Company in Sandy Springs, I had no expectations to overcome, knowing nothing about the restaurant or the chef. I knew it was seafood, but that’s it.
I had no idea that executive chef and partner William Sigley spent seven years in Las Vegas working under the likes of Todd English and Wolfgang Puck before moving to Atlanta to lead the kitchens of Aquanox, Aja, and Bone’s. Nor was I
aware that co-owner and front-of-the-house manager Jason Sheetz was once general manager of Twist and area director of other Here 2 Serve restaurants such as Prime and Goldfish. I was a blank slate.
As I first enter the stand-alone building on Roswell Road, however, the snap judgments begin. Wood-paneled walls of white and pastel blue evoke memories of every Gulf Coast beach condo I’ve rented, punctuated by the namesake hammocks scattered across the ceiling. The feel is coastal Carolina beach shack, where a round or two of Jimmy Buffet tunes is moments away from erupting out of a hidden jukebox.
But as we sit for our first pre-meal cocktail, where I expect overly sweet margaritas, instead I find sips of an eye-poppingly delicious Horse’s Neck ($8). I find myself ordering a second round of the crisp bourbon and ginger beer libation, enjoying an acidic kick of the ginger-lime syrup. Following that up with the swarthy El Diablo ($8), a smoky blend of mezcal, lime, creme de cassis and ginger beer, and I’m realizing that there is more to this place than I first suspected.
The cuisine is primarily coastal seafood, with Baja influences, and the heavy focus on small plates makes this a meal great for sharing with friends. A much more casual menu than he’s crafted at previous restaurants, Sigley’s experience in fine dining shines through in finesse and balanced flavors.
Many of the expected standbys make the menu, like honkin’ peel and eat shrimp ( $7/half-dozen) and steamed oysters ($7/half-dozen), but few true beach dives offer something as subtle as Sigley’s spicy and sour pickled shrimp atop cornmeal fried green tomato ($6.50).
Bivalve fans can leave with a full stomach and a pile of half shells, as I didn’t find a single oyster I didn’t enjoy. Like all the seafood I taste here, the freshness is obvious while we slurp down a dozen raw ($13). But the grilled oysters with simple melted compound barbecue butter ($15/dozen) can turn a raw-only enthusiast like myself into a convert.
But while I enjoy our bowl of steamed mussels ($7.50) well enough, I’m left wishing for a more developed white wine and garlic broth than what arrives. The flavors are there but fall a little flat for my liking. Perhaps if the “grilled bread” was more of a buttery charred sponge of baguette or ciabatta instead of the thin, crunchy wafers that accompany the dish, the under seasoned broth would be less of an issue. The shortcoming of the mussels stand out even more prominently next to Sigley’s wonderfully unrefined but deeply flavorful bowl of chef’s fish soup ($15.50). Each spoonful goes down quickly, with the rich shellfish broth stealing the show.
Some dishes stay true to the Southern coastal cuisine, such as a bowl of thick shrimp and crab gumbo ($6.50), and others blend those flavors with a touch of California. A south coast ceviche, with vinegary hunks of scallop, shrimp and fish, accented with mango, cilantro, red onion and fresh jalapeno, is one part Baja, one part Charleston. And Sigley adds some very successful sophistication to a plate of perfectly cooked, buttery scallops
atop butternut squash drizzled with black truffle and an apple cider reduction. This remains the biggest crowd pleaser of my visits.
In some ways, Hammocks presents a conundrum. On the surface, you have a casual, reasonably priced seafood kitchen, a place to relax with friends and enjoy the familiar dishes of the Southern coast. But, on the other, Sigley laces his menu with several pleasant surprises, and more than a few mouthfuls that showcase his depth of skill to the point where they almost seem out of place here.
Even in his weakest showings, Sigley’s worst dishes here are pretty decent, with the majority of the menu consistently better than most in its class, peppered with flashes of brilliance. Sure, there are certainly better overall plates of refined seafood to be had in the city if you are looking for splurge, but if it is a laid-back and affordable seafood feast you are after, Hammocks is worth a drive.HAMMOCKS TRADING COMPANY 7285 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, 770-395-9592 Food: Coastal seafood with California influences Service: Friendly, attentive and engaging Best dishes: Sea scallops, chef’s fish soup, spicy pickled shrimp Vegetarian selections: a few soups and salads, but a pescetarian’s paradise Credit cards: American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Mondays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; bar open late Children: welcome, and they offer a $5 kids menu Parking: pretty tight, may spill over into the neighboring lots Reservations: yes Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: medium to loud, particularly with the live music and active bar scene on weekends Patio: yes Takeout: yes