A new generation of restaurateurs is coming of age. Atlanta chefs who have enjoyed success are beginning to open second locations and unveil new concepts. Yet, none has done so with quite the bravado of chef Ford Fry.
Fry opened the popular JCT Kitchen in 2007 and has since built an Atlanta restaurant empire. Capitalizing on the success of JCT, Fry opened No. 246, the Optimist and Oyster Bar at the Optimist. And he won’t stop there.
As the Buckhead Life Group downsizes, shedding both Bluepointe and Nava, Fry continues to expand, gobbling up both of those spaces for two new restaurant concepts. Fry also plans to enter the suburban market with yet another new eatery, this one slated to open in Alpharetta.
As Fry’s time becomes increasingly consumed with the concept development and project management of so many new restaurants, the question arises as to whether his first restaurants can maintain the level of service and consistent execution for which they are known.
As we circle back to JCT Kitchen to explore this question, we find a new executive chef: E.J. Hodgkinson, who left Woodfire Grill in December to lead JCT’s team.
Hodgkinson says that while Fry is “extremely busy and has a lot on his plate,” he visits the restaurant frequently and they talk every day to check in. Yet, while Fry retains an active voice in his restaurants, he hires proven chefs to drive the cuisine, which Hodgkinson calls “an enormous honor and responsibility.”
While there are many changes to come, you’ll already see Hodgkinson’s influence taking root. He says his goals are twofold: to bring recognition back to the restaurant and to elevate the level of the food.
He describes his cooking style as new American but won’t tamper with the restaurant’s Southern focus. Instead, he’s using his California-style reliance on local produce and connections with farmers to express the Southern terroir.
Under Hodgkinson’s direction, JCT continues to offer its Sunday Supper ($24). This economical family-style feast begins with heavy-on-the-mayo deviled eggs and this chef’s new buttery layered biscuits that melt my Southern heart. Next up: the fresh and crisp (and maybe a touch salty) farm stand salad made with organic hydroponic lettuces and beautiful rounds of watermelon radish, exemplifying the very best of Hodgkinson’s local farm connections.
Guests pick their own main dish from a short list of choices including favorites like JCT’s thick-crusted honey-laced fried chicken and a thick meaty square of long-cooked brisket over a sharp blue cheese fondue. But tables will have to battle it out to choose the family-size sides from a list of about nine choices.
The creamy Red Mule grits and the red kale made it to our table. The wilted kale, a crossbreed of curly and red Russian varieties developed by Crystal Organics, was our hands-down favorite. The quality produce here speaks for itself with simple preparation: hot pan, grape seed oil, a generous dose of apple cider vinegar and butter.
This produce also stars in the restaurant’s vegetable plate ($17) made with chicken stock (vegetable stock on request). Until now, JCT’s veggie plate has long been one of my favorites in town, just after Restaurant Eugene’s. The kitchen-sink-style mixture of sauteed vegetables comes with fat buttered potato dumplings plumped with a fresh ricotta mixture. Though tasty, something is missing. It doesn’t quite have the same flavor burst I remembered.
When partnered with a crispy-skinned confit chicken leg in the chicken and dumplings ($19), those ricotta orbs come to life, a play of flavors and textures unlike any chicken and dumplings grandma made.
JCT fans may begin to notice subtle changes in menu items. The pimento cheese with that infamous battered “Fry” bread ($6) now features a mixture of aged Grafton and Cabot cheddar cheeses. The (not-so-) angry mussels ($11) are now wild and may only be offered seasonally.
Here’s my advice for how to navigate JCT Kitchen as it transitions: ask your waiter what’s new and go for it. That’s where you’ll experience Hodgkinson’s talents.
Try the pork-belly-topped Johnny cake ($11). The fatty pork belly melts in your mouth, but the OMG moment comes from the cornmeal pancake cooked in the luscious pork belly grease. A crispy ring forms around the exterior of the cake, concealing a creamy-soft cornmeal and sweet potato puree center. Yes, the whole thing is swabbed in a Benton’s country ham and Coca-Cola glaze, but the Johnny cake… OMG.
Tell your waiter you’d like the special. On one of my visits, it was slivers of bluenose tartare ($10) with sweet and tangy kumquats and tiny Hakurei turnips. These bold flavors are balanced with a refreshing creme fraiche and potato medley. Trust me, go with the special.
The desserts will change soon, as well, or so we can hope. Corporate pastry chef Taria Camerino and her team plan and produce desserts for all of Fry’s restaurants. The current lineup at JCT includes my favorite rum-soaked coconut cake ($8). This dessert from the restaurant’s original menu mimics a tres leches cake in its own light and boozy way. I have no quarrel here.
It’s some of the other desserts I’d like to see fall by the wayside … like the buttermilk panna cotta ($7), whose description includes a “Yum!” notation. (My first clue?) The flavorless tobacco granola and maple bourbon jelly with the panna cotta makes for an unpleasant jumble of textures. The power of suggestion just isn’t enough.
Similarly, the peanut butter push pop ($4) doesn’t live up to its playful promise due to another textural flub. The consistency of the frozen peanut butter mousse is akin to a chalky goat cheese, requiring small gnawing bites to sever clumps of the pop. I long for this push pop’s cousin — the original version from my school lunch days.
Thankfully, JCT’s beverage program remains intact, still allowing for playful games of wine suggest-sample-repeat. I have no doubt they will find a wine to match both your tastes and your meal.
After more than five years and several sister restaurants later, JCT Kitchen still seems as relevant today as when it opened. I look forward to seeing it evolve under Hodgkinson’s — and Fry’s — direction.JCT Kitchen 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta, 404-355-2252