Almost exactly two years ago, a gang of six former “Top Chef” contestants gathered in Atlanta to host a multicourse benefit dinner. Fans of the show will remember chef’testants like Kenny Gilbert, Tiffany Derry, Arnold Myint and Atlanta’s own Tracey Bloom. They were among the chefs putting their talents on show at Ray’s at Killer Creek in Alpharetta.
After an amuse bouche bite from each of the chefs, the dinner progressed through six additional courses. I remember only two dishes from that meal two years ago. One I disliked. The other was far and away the best course of the evening: sous-vide Kurobuta pork belly with a surprisingly smoky blueberry compote, an onion agrodolce and marcona almonds for light texture.
Although no actual competition took place that night, the elimination challenge winner would have been Bloom, representing Atlanta in fine form with the pork belly.
Over the course of her career, Bloom, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has worked the Buckhead Life circuit, at Concentrics Restaurants and at the former Roswell restaurant Asher. Prior to her move to Alpharetta to work for Ray’s Restaurants, Bloom spent four years at Table 1280.
When I spoke with Bloom two years ago about her transition to Ray’s, she said, “There’s a huge learning curve moving from inside the Perimeter to outside. It is so different in many ways. The clientele is different.”
Now at two years into her stint, Ray’s at Killer Creek is ready to make some changes. First, the 12-year-old restaurant rebranded itself as Ray’s on the Creek. Bloom got a new kitchen, the bar had an overhaul and the dining room received a refresh. Lighter colors and coastal touches enliven the ski-lodge-style architecture.
Yet, the transformation was not entirely complete. At first glance, Bloom’s stamp is still missing from the menu. If anything, the menu has inched closer to mimicking those at its sister restaurants, Ray’s on the River and Ray’s in the City. Ray’s on the Creek is now less chophouse and slightly more fish house.
The menu contains Ray’s signature dishes, which can be found at each of his collection of restaurants. Dishes such as the well-balanced and hearty seafood gumbo ($5 cup/$7 bowl) and the New Orleans shrimp appetizer ($10) with a rich barbecue butter sauce both fall into this category.
“Baby steps,” Bloom says. Working under tight guidelines, she’s making changes … gradually. Take the shrimp and grits ($15), a nice version layered with a medley of mushrooms, bell peppers and a thick white-wine-butter sauce. With Bloom at the helm, it’s now made with the toothsome Logan Turnpike grits instead of instant.
The horseradish grouper ($29) also bears Bloom’s influence. She nixed the breadcrumbs and added a Meyer lemon confit for a lighter, brighter version.
She also switched things up on the classic New York strip ($32), a lightly fennel-and-black-pepper-seasoned steak with a nice sear. Instead of potatoes here, the meat shares the plate with Bloom’s pan-browned spaetzle with spinach and an assemblage of mushrooms — a fun addition that just needs a little salt.
As Bloom quietly tweaks the menu, her style begins to emerge. You may be unaware that she’s buying non-genetically modified products whenever possible. You may not notice the disappearance of gluten from certain dishes.
For example, the classic and addictive house-made chips slathered in a lumpy blue cheese sauce ($8) remain on the menu with one change. Bloom has tweaked this item, making it gluten-free by using real blue cheese rather than an instant packet containing modified food starch.
You may not realize that most items are made in-house, like Bloom’s signature pickled onions that often garnish dishes or the sweet and sour tomato jam. On the salmon dish ($22), this vinegary tomato and onion relish contrasts the oily-rich notes of the salmon and smoky bacon grits. I only object to it being served cold on top of the warm fish.
Try an original Bloom dish with the Ahi tacos ($12). Miniature taco shells burst with crunchy strips of cucumber and radish dressed with avocado aioli. Sriracha adds a touch of heat to the seasoned veggies layered with thick slices of fresh tuna. The tacos top my list of favorites here, although a little more acid might pull it all together.
After a little investigation, Bloom’s influence becomes more evident. While it may happen at a snail’s pace, Bloom continues to push the boundaries of a menu rooted in the restaurant group’s history and a clientele who expects to eat the same dishes they ate at prom. But, as Bloom notes, she has to tread carefully as she earns customers’ trust. “The whole thing could still take another year or more.”RAY’S ON THE CREEK