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City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
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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

Learn Something Daily

October 31st, 2009
3:07 pm

Palette is: a rigid, flat surface on which a painter arranges and mixes paints.

Palate is: a usually intellectual taste or liking b : the sense of taste

C

October 31st, 2009
1:49 pm

@Waydog “Well, that explains it. If you really think of Canoe…” really?? you can’t be serious, every bit of food I’ve ever had there has been absolutely par excellence.

“Too many people can’t appreciate grass feed beef or vegetables…” if the place really uses fine ingredients properly then the food could be instantly appreciated by anyone for its quality, individual tastes non-withstanding. Simply put, you don’t need a palette to appreciate really good food.

I think that two things are going on here: one is that people feel embarrassed for going to trendy expensive restaurants thinking that they are getting the best product and service in the city only find the same place soundly trashed on this semi-anonymous public forum. And secondly people, like me for one, are just tired of ajc reviews which aren’t objective.

@COMMON SENSE ” If you don’t like it, shut up and don’t go back. Nobody is impressed with your snobbish comments.” No to the former and yes to the latter. Why? Because articles like this one are misleading, and if people only let friends post glowing exaggerated reviews then that means that other folks will get to waste an evening and some cash on a sub-par meal.

WayDog

October 31st, 2009
1:02 pm

Well, that explains it. If you really think of Canoe as being on this plane then your not going to get places like this AT ALL. Why not stick with Outback and Applebee’s?

Unfortunately our palettes have been burned away by over processed, industrial fodder. Too many people can’t appreciate grass feed beef or vegitables that have not had the flavor bred out of them for the sake standing up under long distance shipping. It’s really sad, but that’s what it’s come too.

Kudos to those who can appreciate local, true orgainic (not fake organic) and keep up the good fight.

Kirk

October 31st, 2009
12:52 pm

Good or bad, I love reading about “cutting edge cuisine”. Since I no longer can afford to eat out, I now live vicariously through reviews. My own cooking is stepped up a by reading about what others are doing. I can’t understand all the vitriol. If you like it , you eat it, If you don’t, send it back. If the service is bad, tell them. If it is too expensive, tell them and don’t go back. Yelling and hating should be reserved for politicians.

Tyree

October 31st, 2009
11:41 am

Check out ” Yelp ” if you want to see a bunch of cry babies. People will slam a restaurant for anything trivial. One post last week was critical because the location did not show up on her vehicle’s GPS.

No restaurant will get it right 100% all the time. However, remember before you slam a business, be realistic and take emotion out of your review. Visit twice before making a final conclusion. Real jobs are at stake.

All We Need is Love

October 31st, 2009
11:37 am

To summarize: Some folks don’t like this particular restaurant. Other folks who like the restaurant call the first group “haters” and then begin to rain down, er, hate on them.

Where is Rodney King when we need him? Group hug, gourmands.

Rock Top

October 31st, 2009
11:33 am

Way to go Floppy & Gina!!! You deserve this and more – congratulations! BJF

Steve

October 31st, 2009
11:17 am

oops .. meant good post ‘no common sense’. Common sense started out good, but the ’shut up and don’t go back’ is annoying.

Steve

October 31st, 2009
11:15 am

Good post Common Sense. Just because someone doesn’t like a restaurant doesn’t give all the backers the right to trash them. I haven’t seen a detractor for the restaurant attack any of the other posters from the get go, just talk about the flaws of their experiences at the restaurant. Why is there so much hate from the people that like it? I just don’t get it.

I have never eaten at the restaurant, but jsut by all the elitist hate being spewed by the supporters on here it doesn’t sound like my kind of place. You certainly aren’t helping the restaurant by slamming everyone who posts about a negative experience.

no common sense

October 31st, 2009
11:13 am

Common sense has no sense. if you don’t like a restaurant, do NOT shut up, but please let others know. That’s what these posting are for – to share all opinions. The snobs are the ones who only want to hear those who agree with themselves.