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The AJC’s 2009 restaurant of the year: Restaurant Eugene

Linton and Gina Hopkins in the Restaurant Eugene's dining room/Credit: AJC

Linton and Gina Hopkins in Restaurant Eugene's dining room/Credit: Becky Stein, Special

RESTAURANT EUGENE ****

It’s not unusual for Linton Hopkins to spend the better part of an afternoon making pickles with a classroom full of fourth and fifth graders from Eretus Rivers Elementary school in Atlanta.

The chef and owner of Restaurant Eugene, Holeman & Finch Public House and H & F Bread Co. goes way back with pickles. Born in Atlanta, he was raised on them, along with everything else than comes with Southern cooking, from farm-fresh vegetables to fried chicken. He grew up about a half-mile from the restaurant’s location on Peachtree Road.

He and wife Gina opened Restaurant Eugene in the spring of 2004. Since then, this small, elegant spot has changed and grown into one of the city’s greatest dining treasures. And this year, it joins former honorees Pura Vida, Sotto Sotto, Five & Ten in Athens and Tierra as the AJC’s pick for Restaurant of the Year.

When I began dolling out the honor back in 2005, I was drawn – and still am – to the idea that what our Restaurant of the Year should be about is more than just kudos for great cooking. There had to be more to it than that. It would need to be a chef-owned, chef-driven small spot that puts food first, but one that grew from neighborhood enclave to the stature that Restaurant Eugene celebrates today: One of the finest restaurants not just in Atlanta, but in the Southeast.

Named after Hopkins’ maternal grandfather, Eugene Holeman, Restaurant Eugene has become a dining destination that celebrates the warmth of the Southern table blended with classic cooking techniques Hopkins acquired from formal training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and the kind of kitchen wisdom you pick up along the way, from New Orleans to Atlanta.

Hopkins has become one of the South’s most outspoken chefs, but you’ll hardly catch him on a soap box. He furthers his ideals – preserving Southern foodways, and in doing so forwarding sustainable agriculture – by doing. He is an active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance (an organization that forwards the preservation of Southern foods) and founder, with wife and partner Gina, of the Peachtree Road Farmer’s Market. And he was one of the first chefs in the city to list his local purveyors – some of the state’s greatest small farmers – on the back of his menu.

But he shouts his message loud a clear with the food he prepares at Eugene – vegetables and meats sourced from local farmers, artisanal cheeses and fish from the freshest sources available. The bread he serves is made just up the street at his bakery, H & F Bread Co. Earlier this year, he made a dramatic decision to break the restaurant’s more traditional menu into smaller plates, with designations of “fish,” “vegetables” and “meat and game,” a move that has paid off by making the experience seem less formal, with more options in portion size and price.

“Vegetables,” he almost whispers into the phone, “are what drive Eugene.” A cancer survivor, Hopkins exudes an innate sense of calm when he speaks. “They are truly what give us the ability to play.”

Restaurant Eugene's okra/Credit: AJC

Restaurant Eugene's okra/Credit: Becky Stein, Special

He couldn’t be more right: A recent dinner included a happy sort of study in okra, with spears cut and seared over high heat in a cast iron skillet, served with slightly pickled slices tempura battered and fried, both joined by some of the kitchen’s house-made chow-chow and hot pepper jelly, all over a smear of creamy grits.

His vegetable plate is legendary, and might include anything from seasonal mushroom combinations to grits and baby turnips. And he’s not afraid to cook outside the lines, either – Berkshire pork belly is crisped and at once deliciously fatty and meaty, served with tiny hakurei turnips, preserved apple and a wonderfully sweet-yet-acidic sorghum glaze.

Perhaps Hopkins gets his greatest gift – understanding the importance of food pathways and preserving local traditions – from his Southern upbringing and an anthropology degree from Emory University.

“The idea keeps crystallizing for me more and more,” he says. “Ingredients and where they come from are my language as a chef. So when I ask myself, ‘how should people eat?’ the answer is always that how we bring food to the table is what makes all the difference.”

Restaurant Eugene, 2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, 404-355-0321

Overall rating: ****

Food: Contemporary American/Southern

Service: Like the rest of Restaurant Eugene’s team, the wait staff prides itself on professionalism.

Price range: $$$

Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover

Hours of operation: Open for dinner Monday – Thursday from 5:30 – 10:00 p.m. and Friday – Saturday from 5:30 – 11:00 p.m. Sunday supper, with a special menu, is from 5:30 – 10:00 p.m.

Best dishes: Frequent seasonal changes make it hard to pick favorites, but Hopkins’ vegetable plate, no matter the season, is a must have. Others to enjoy now: Berkshire pork belly with hakurei, apple preserves and sorghum glaze; matsutake, chanterelle and little pig mushrooms over soft rice grits with lemon and parsley; American red snapper with peanut gnocchi, Russian kale and citrus marmalade; duck breast with peach preserves, carrots and little pig mushrooms

Vegetarian selections and special needs: Many dishes offer meatless options, but some may be cooked with meat stocks, so ask your server.

Children: Restaurant Eugene is a perfect place for children to experience fine dining, though older children will enjoy it more, and early evening hours or Sunday suppers are the best times.

Parking: Complimentary valet

Reservations: Yes

Wheelchair access: Yes

Smoking: No smoking

Noise level: Low

Patio: No

Takeout: No

Address, telephone: 2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, 404-355-0321

Web site: www.restauranteugene.com

55 comments Add your comment

Common Sense

October 31st, 2009
10:14 am

I’ve never eaten at Restaurant Eugene, but am taken aback at the level of vitriol shown on some of the postings. Many seem to have an elitist, “I know more than you do” feel about them. Lighten up, folks. If you like the place, great- support it by patronizing it. If you don’t like it, shut up and don’t go back. Nobody is impressed with your snobbish comments.

Jeanne

October 30th, 2009
9:56 pm

I am sorry but I have to strongly disagree, my last meal here was terrible. I recently went there for my birthday (2 weeks ago) and have to say I was sorely disappointed. My appetizer was very good (and the only thing we had that was good) but my husband had the crab cake and it tasted like the crab had gone bad. Our entrees were also horrible, I had the red snapper which tasted like it had been caught last year and my husband had the NY strip which also tasted rancid. I have been here a few times and each time it had been wonderful until now. Our meal was so bad I have to say I will not be back. Time to find a new favorite place.

Lauren

October 30th, 2009
6:28 pm

BRAVO! The crispy kale will change the way you think of vegetables. Many congratulations to Gina & Linton.

Jason

October 30th, 2009
5:34 pm

Thanks, Cindy, for the worthless commentary and waste of bandwidth.

Cindy

October 30th, 2009
4:56 pm

This restaurant and its owner are overrated. He has a lot of “PR” connections that get him into the paper faster than the paparazzi can for a celebrity. He paid for “restaurant” of the year. There are Briliant Chefs around the city they do not get into magazines like this because they simply couldn’t care less about fame, but rather producing a good product and making their restaurant well known. As for their bread, I tasted it at Restaurant Eugene and immediately had heartburn, don’t know what they put in their, but it’s not all “natural” as they make it out to be.

I think Atlanta people are far smarter than believing a headline, we’ve learned what the media does. Puffs up everyone, especially when they are paid. Atlanta, its your choice who to believe, your heartburn or the media.

ChrisR

October 29th, 2009
10:13 pm

@SEAN The haters would suggest CANOE. Also I’m not surprised to see that half the people on here report a so so experience when the AJC throws a bone to some amateur ’southern’ cooks place (or several in this case). Canoe has a real kitchen which is run brigade style and reasonably priced, the food is excellent. They will re-open in NOV 2009

Jimmy

October 29th, 2009
9:28 pm

I’ve have eaten at Restaurant Eugene several times and H&F more times than I can count, and both are exceptional. My best experience at RE beats out my second best meal in ATL (at Seegar’s). H&F is where my 6-year-old learned to love sweatbreads. Both are kind of aimed at foodies, which may explain why some people have had sticker shock. But if you love top quality ingredients and are into food (or would like to learn) then you can’t go wrong with either one. Great call by AJC (and Food and Wine).

WilliamG

October 29th, 2009
5:16 pm

Eugene would have to get better to rate horrible. I was amazed to read this article and had to wonder if the reviewer actually ate there. I am not intending to be mean spirited and all places have off days but Eugene specializes in off days – at least based on the three times I tried the restaurant. Maybe it’s me but I think I have a reasonable palate and at least average experience with restaurants – the food is bad and the service is somewhere between mediocre and awful. Just for fun, maybe the reviewer should go back to this place a few times – or perhaps, here in print, offer an explanation.

Jim

October 29th, 2009
4:13 pm

I think this is well deserved for Hopkins. I have been there several times and the food is of the highest quality and always perfectly prepared. The food is delicious with out being silly or just weird.
I have eaten in most of the “nice” places in town more than once and eventually you catch a restaurant on a bad night and for some that is enough to keep them away. It is a tough business. That said, I would suggest that any poor service at either of Hopkin’s establishments is more the exception than the rule.

mike

October 29th, 2009
4:12 pm

Saying servers are impressed with themselves and then say you talk bad about them everytime you get a chance? Now who is impressed with themselves? I also heartily agree that evaluating a restaurant on Valentines Day is lame.

Holeman and Finch and Rest. Eugene aren’t for everybody. If you don’t appreciate the farm to table concept; that fresh and local are better, you won’t be a fan. Small farmers charge more for their products than food factories. If you have ever priced Benton Farms pork, Berkshire hogs, specialty mushrooms, etc., you would understand that the restaurants won’t be cheap. Go back on a Monday night. Relax. Then you may get it.