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.”
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
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: No smoking
Noise level: Low
Address, telephone: 2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, 404-355-0321
Web site: www.restauranteugene.com