When Leif Johnson moved to Atlanta six years ago, packing up his life as a winery chef in Napa Valley, he hadn’t planned on settling in Alpharetta.
In fact, when Johnson was on the hunt for an intimate space to set up a chef-driven contemporary bistro after running a catering business in Dunwoody for a few years, he combed trendier Buckhead and Midtown, but never found the right fit. Little did he suspect it would be at a former strip-mall cafe in Alpharetta where he’d make his mark in the South.
Opened in early 2011, Bite began as a tiny lunch-centric spot with dinner service Thursdays through Saturdays and a very tight menu of mostly sandwiches, flatbreads and salads.
As he quickly built a core of loyal patrons and cheerleaders over the next two years, it became clear Johnson needed to expand. What was supposed to be a weeks-long expansion into the neighboring space ballooned into months, but the new Bite Bistro & Bar reopened in January with expanded hours and a broader menu.
Bite has positioned itself well as a neighborhood bistro, drawing heavily from the Alpharetta and John’s Creek area and bringing in a loyal group of repeat customers. Be it lunch or dinner, the still-cozy space rarely feels close to empty. While reservations are allowed for groups of eight or more at the “tree table,” the remainder of the 56 seats are left for walk-ins, first come, first served. One crowded Friday night had us waiting 15 or 20 minutes for a table for two — by no means unreasonable — though there isn’t much room for loitering in the tight space when there is a packed house.
Thankfully, we found an open loveseat near the hostess stand, right beneath a collection of mounted miniature porcelain animal heads. While the contemporary décor is comfortable and stylish, it elicited a few quizzical looks from the group, particularly the large red plastic chandelier. It feels one part hunting lodge, one part “Clockwork Orange.”
Drawing from his California roots, Johnson, along with collaborator and chef de cuisine Jason Morgan, focuses on New American cuisine with occasional Latin-American influences. And while the duo has added to the regularly changing menu, the much-loved staples remain.
It would be a mistake to visit Bite and miss out on the Lobster Roll ($17 lunch/$19 dinner). One of the few year-round items, it is no wonder this dish earned so many fans. Morgan’s creation expertly balances tarragon against the buttery lobster meat, crunches with chopped celery, and cuts the rich aioli with lemon zest and a topping of pickled onion, served on a black pepper-thyme roll. This dish is undoubtedly one of the best of its kind in the city.
The fig and prosciutto flatbread ($10) also returns. It’s a great shareable dish for groups, with the sweetness of the fig, the salty ham and the bite of the balsamic reduction all balancing well against the creamy mascarpone. Another holdover from the old menu, the red chili pork taco ($9 lunch/$10 dinner), is the only taco to make the leap from the lunch menu to dinner. Johnson’s mole barbecue sauce might smother the flavor of the smoked pork, but paired with the pickled jalapeno slaw and onions, you’ll barely notice or care.
While the menu features its share of highlights, some dishes feel overwrought. In the double ($12 lunch/$15 dinner), Johnson assembles a fantastic pair of 4-ounce burger patties of ground short rib and brisket, but they’re bogged down by an unnecessary topping of bacon and a sort of Russian dressing. Scraped down to just beef, cheese, pickles and onions, I can much better appreciate the quality of the beef — this isn’t a patty that should be hidden behind heavy sauces.
Similarly, I enjoyed every bite of the pork belly small plate ($14) — though the serving is easily entrée sized. The sunchoke puree and crisped Brussels sprouts go wonderfully with the savory pork, but I still don’t understand the single seared scallop awkwardly perched on top. This dish is fine without it, and the slightly overcooked and a tad too fishy scallop detracts more than enhances.
On a separate visit weeks prior, the same fishy issues haunted the diver scallops entrée ($27). We spent most of our time picking around them to get at the tomato-corn sofrito and roasted leek risotto.
Consistency also can also be an issue, especially on the busiest nights. When my duck breast ($25) arrived charred, I
credited the staff for calling it to my attention before I noticed, informing me that a properly cooked piece was already in the making. I satiated myself on the savory bowl of root vegetables while I waited, and the replacement duck arrived juicy and perfectly cooked.
While I appreciated the gesture and the proactive approach, the first duck shouldn’t have left the kitchen.
And I’m not interested in trying the short rib pappardelle ($22) again to discern whether the grey, tough cubes of beef on the otherwise delicious bowl of pasta were an error in design or execution.
Bite does a lot of things well, and in some cases does them exceptionally so. But, whether through error in implementation or concept, there are enough letdowns that I’d advise accompanying a more experienced friend to act as your guide.
If you are in the neighborhood, it is certainly worth a try; just order carefully.Bite Bistro & Bar 11500 Webb Bridge Road Suite A9, Alpharetta. 770-754-5500