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The best restaurants in Atlanta 2009: Songs of the South

Abattoir's chicken liver and foie gras mousse/Credit: AJC

Abattoir's chicken liver and foie gras mousse/Credit: AJC

The lagging economy can’t stop Atlanta’s restaurants from setting a pace that’s continually being recognized nationally. We have great restaurants, and we’re not afraid to show it. With the entire ruckus, a brand new breed of regional cuisine has emerged. Restaurants that exude modernity while embracing what’s best about Southern cooking have blossomed as examples of what’s best about Atlanta dining now: farm-fresh ingredients, artisanal methods from cheese making to butchery and the love of preserving. Plus there’s always dessert, something these restaurants prove is at the top of any great Southern menu. These six restaurants exemplify what’s best about Atlanta restaurants now.

ABATTOIR ****

1170 Howell Mill Road, inside the White Provision complex, Atlanta, 404-892-3335

Atlanta’s most lauded restaurateurs, Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, have created in Abattoir a personal statement that has already become, after recently opening this past summer, a benchmark in Atlanta dining. Much has been made of the meat-centric menu, created by Quatrano and chef Joshua Hopkins. But eating here is about so much more than offal, alternative meat cuts and innards. The vegetables, whether in a crisped salad of fresh farm lettuces crowned with a poached egg and bacon or in a pickling of cabbage served from a jar, are as much a reason to crow about Abattoir as the chicken liver and foie gras mousse laced with Armagnac. Add a weathered, modern farmhouse look, an excellent cocktail list and a staff that pleases, and Abattoir may be the best reason yet to embrace your inner carnivore while eating your veggies.

CAKES & ALE ****

54 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-377-7994

Chef-owner Billy Allin and wife Kristin have created in Cakes & Ale the perfect balance between farm fresh (the couple grows many of the vegetables on the menu in their back yard) and friendly. The menu, drawn nightly on a large blackboard, is part seasonal, part standard and all genius: My last meal here offered crisped spears of okra (soon to be gone, I’m sure), perfect in heat and texture, lightly battered with cornmeal to be dipped in house-made ranch dressing. Order your own; they are not to be shared. Ditto the hot orbs of arancini, laced with bee pollen and fennel, served in a papered cone like fair food. Fish is something Allin cooks better than most chefs in the city, even though the fresh corn and pole beans in brodo under a halibut steak could stand on their own. Desserts, from pastry chef Cynthia Wong, are playfully plebian: The soft, cream-filled “phatty cakes” have become city legend, and warm chocolate pudding with soft cream served in a pickling jar will conjure memories of mom’s apron strings. Editor’s note: If you’re noticing an extra star at the end of the restaurant’s name, that’s because there is one: No restaurant has proved its mettle more than Cakes & Ale since it’s opening, so it’s gone from a three- to four-star status.

4th & SWIFT ****

621 North Ave. N.E., Atlanta, 678-904-0160

The space is classic Atlanta: a roomy, cavernous affair drawn from the remnants of the Southern Dairies building; the stylish bar drapes one side of the massive room while a modern dining room is set on another. Both set the stage for chef-owner Jay Swift’s contemporary Southern menu. And from soup to nuts, Swift delivers – his soups are always a best start to a meal here, from creamy roasted corn to more fall-like inspirations of butternut squash with maple cream. A plate of Berkshire pork belly, loin, and house-made sausage has become a signature, served with the restaurant’s decadent macaroni-and-cheese. Swift’s hand is subtle, and it’s not unusual to see heirloom vegetables highlighted as nightly specials.

JCT KITCHEN ****

1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-355-2252

JCT Kitchen has, from the start, exemplified what’s best about modern Southern cooking. Chef-owner Ford Fry adds to fresh, well-sourced ingredients classical French technique and Southern sensibilities, creating a menu that turns our timeless notion of how we cook on its ear. From his otherworldly fried chicken (part crispy, part juicy) with mac-and cheese so rich and creamy it should have its own zip code to “angry” mussels spiced and peppered with serrano chile, bacon and a bit of onion in a broth that borders on creaminess, this kitchen offers a tasty take on all that’s right about the Southern dining now. Desserts set the bar high for other offerings; rarely do I find anything to argue about with milky, sugar-and-rum sopped tres leches topped with coconut, or soft gingerbread pudding cake with tart Meyer lemon curd. Barkeep Lara Creasy adds a sexy dimension to the cocktails, too: Try her “fields of gold” with Number 209 gin, chamomile-infused vermouth, local honey, lemon juice and fennel pollen.

Gingerbread pudding cake and lemon curd at JCT Kitchen/ Credit: AJC

Gingerbread pudding cake and lemon curd at JCT Kitchen/ Credit: AJC

REPAST ****

620 Glen Iris Drive, Atlanta. 404-870-8707

Alluring Medjool dates wrapped with bacon and stuffed with marcona almonds notwithstanding, Repast’s menu has become a reflection of chef-owners and husband-and-wife team Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai’s yin yang of talents and tastes. I’m not a fan of the all-Eastern selections, such as the congee-like lobster and king crab nabe yaki, but when these two put their heads together in the kitchen the results are a blessed meeting of East meets South. Stewed and curried okra with peanuts and dishes such as crab cakes “Repast style,” which are firmer and more purin pudding-like than their Western counterparts, marry Truex’s Southern roots with Obunai’s Japanese ancestry. And the truffled corn, creamed and served au gratin, is just plain mind numbing, no matter what side of the planet you’re on. Desserts are always special, and where Obunai’s touch is most appreciated, from a creamy olive oil cake with marcona almond ice cream to coconut cream in a crispy jasmine rice tart.

SHAUN’S ****

1029 Edgewood Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-577-4358

When chef-owner Shaun Doty’s eponymous restaurant in Inman Park opened in 2007, it was instantly to Atlanta what the Savings & Loan was to Bedford Falls: a genuine place to go and, in the restaurant’s case, eat. Since then, the East Village style chicken livers over toast, steak frites with fries “graisse de carnard” style and pork schnitzel with lemon and peanuts have become some of the best reasons to eat out in Atlanta. Doty cooks seasonally, so things change here as much as they remain the same, but let’s hope he always manages to keep the sticky toffee pudding on the menu, no matter the season. Its gooey, sticky butterscotch-y goodness gets my vote as one of the best desserts the city has to offer.

74 comments Add your comment

JCT Fan

October 29th, 2009
2:01 pm

We have had two office lunches at JCT and it was supurb both times. Service was great and the “regional” food was perfect. We’re lunching with some of our vendors in mid-November and the first choice of everyone is JCT. Congratulations to them for making your list.

concerned.

October 29th, 2009
1:35 pm

This list can only be explained by one of two things you are getting kickbacks or you had your tastebuds removed. When you named Tierra as the best restaurant in Atlanta that was truly a gem but JCT???? I’m pretty sure it stands for Just Crappy Tasting as the food is merely ok on its best day. And Shaun’s??? Granted the pork buns are amazing but the rest is simply ok.

Lance

October 29th, 2009
1:04 pm

4th and Swift is Fabulous! All across the board! Shauns food is “good” not great and the service there stinks! We had a party of 10 on a not so busy Sat night and they were just over-matched. If it wasn’t for the watermelon martini we all would have walked out after average apps.

Rodney

October 29th, 2009
12:46 pm

+1 for Ted – I totally agree. I’ve been to each of these, several times each, and have yet to experience anything un-ordinary. Sure, if you choose to go out in a group of ten at 8:30pm Saturday, you’re going to wait. Anywhwew. So some of the service issues may be the poster’s own doing.

Myself? I never make a rezzie for more than four people. There’s just too much involved in large parties. I rarely ever even attend a more-than-4-top party if I can help it.

If I had to rank the five, based on my own opinion, it would be 4th and Swift, Abattoir, Shaun’s, JCT Kitchen, Repast.

But I never turn down an invite to any of them! :) (hint, hint, Meridith … in case you ever want to start a “guest” review)

And I’ll close with this – GO KEVIN! (Top Chef reference)

jay

October 29th, 2009
12:24 pm

Three Cheers for Ted!! Well said.

Ted

October 29th, 2009
11:38 am

Every one of these restaurants are inspiring in they’re own right. To all the people who have horrible restaurant experiences: Mention your problem to the restaurant while you are still there. Give them the chance to fix it. Running home and posting “I hate it” annomously on the internet doesn’t solve the problem.

jimmy

October 29th, 2009
9:58 am

Other than the burger, I’ve heard nothing but disappointing things about JCT the last few months. My last visit the shrimp and grits were so salty I gave up on trying to eat them.

Skinny Cake

October 29th, 2009
9:42 am

Here we go again – can there ever be a food review in this city without mentioning “phatty cakes”? I am so sick and tired of hearing about these fat soaked dough balls over and over and over again that I vow NEVER to go to Cakes and Ale because of it. Get a life, food reviewers and find another dessert to talk about. There are over 5000 restaurants in this metro area, surely another one makes a good dessert, don’t ya think?

Not JCT fan

October 29th, 2009
9:08 am

I had a horrible service problem at JCT Kitchen….slllllloooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww service, it ruined the whole night. and it was our anniversary dinner, so that made it worse. The food was good, but maybe we didnt order the right things because we werent swooning…or maybe it was the hour wait from taking our appetizer plates to getting our dinners that did it.

We did REALLY enjoy our visit to 4th & swift back in the spring.

Chris

October 29th, 2009
8:52 am

Shaun’s? Really? C’mon Meredith! The food is average, but the it’s the service that ensured I will not return. My party of 4 went on a Saturday night and had to wait an hour for a table even though we had a reservation. The hostess acted like she really couldn’t care less. Our server was dull and inefficient. I am quite familiar with Shaun Doty’s talent, so I guess my expectations were too high. I expected something more than just average from a chef of his caliber. This city has so many more restaurants that provide a better dining experience, so Shaun’s does not warrant a “Best of” anything.