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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

fatkid

November 2nd, 2009
3:33 am

Sweetbreads w duck fat biscuit,foie gras,lamb saddle just go do not listen to these idiots!

hawesg

November 1st, 2009
9:35 pm

Congratulations, Linton and Gina. Both meals we’ve had there were as good as any we’ve had anywhere. You’ve created Atlanta’s version of the Grammercy Tavern. Well done and well earned.

And to think I once ate your fried balogna.

susiross

November 1st, 2009
6:44 pm

I am no food snob. Because of my job I do end up eating out a lot – both here and other places. This is not a good restaurant. It’s nothing to do with being some great genius of food – it’s just not very good. I have to wonder how someone who does this for a living – review restaurants – would think differently. I would just keep quiet if this was a judgment call – truly it isn’t. I’d say “go there and see for yourself” but honestly I can’t wish that on anyone.

Ratliff

November 1st, 2009
3:40 pm

I have been twice, The first time I was disappointed because I had high expectations, The second time I was disappointed with no expectations. The service was inexcusably slow both times. I had the same experience as Andrea. The food was just not that good( the second time it was cold). The price was absurd for what was delivered. Reading the comments I can only conclude that the resturant is hit and miss and I am 2 for 2 on misses. There will be no strike three.

There are so many good resturants in Atlanta that I find it incredible that RE could be named resturant of the year. Better food and service can be found for 1/3 the price at Top Flr on Myrtle (of course you will have to deal with the mod squad decor but I can tolerate almost any decor if the food and service are great).

Jared

November 1st, 2009
12:56 pm

My vote for restaurant of the year, Pricci!!!

Jack o Latern

November 1st, 2009
10:13 am

Jeanne, you ignorant slut!! Just kidding.
Wow, lighten up.

notaracist

November 1st, 2009
9:16 am

People trash or praise a place usually because of their personal experience. I welcome all comments. Every one’s experience is obviously not the same. Either listen to the pos post and go, or go with the neg post and do not go. Or ignore all the post and see for yourself. Lastly everyone is entitled to their opinion and are free to comment on their experiences.

Jim.

October 31st, 2009
8:15 pm

And why are all the pictures always halfway out of focus? Really annoying. Not trendy . Not cool. Just dumb.

Jim.

October 31st, 2009
8:14 pm

Meredith has her favorites(Joel) and hates some others(Emeril’s) . She’s almost always wrong. The best food, service, and restaurant I’ve been to was Emeril’s. Can’t comment on Eugene because I’ve not eaten there, but if Meredith just falls all over herself over it, it probably isn’t good. I’ll decide when I go.

lski56

October 31st, 2009
3:28 pm

I have to say that I have gone 3 times there. Once was very good and the last two times it was almost uneatable. I have been to some of the finest restaurants in the country (San Fran, NYC Chicago) and I do feel this is highly over rated. To be more specific the filet I ordered the last time was tough and undercooked. I had to return it and they tried to fix it but could not. They offered me $10 off my meal. ? What’s that about? The wine pour is pathetic though their selection is good.
Over all I don’t think I will go back again, there are many other fine restaurants in town (Nan, Hal’s for a great steak, Rathbuns for great southern based food with a twist. ) I wish them luck but restaurant of the year…. I don’t think so.