It’s been about five years since Linton Hopkins opened Restaurant Eugene (2277 Peachtree Road, 404-355-0321). During my first visit — before the restaurant had received much press — I showed up dressed in my usual slothful way, direct from the gym, as I recall. Wayne was similarly attired.
As soon as we walked through the door of the restaurant, we felt out of place. Nearly every man in the dining room was in a coat and tie. We were jetted to a table in the bar area, where we would not spoil the view for the crowd of old-line Buckhead residents. (OK, actually, we didn’t have a reservation and the hospitable Gina Hopkins, Linton’s wife, fit us in.)
I’ve only returned to the restaurant a few times since then, switching my allegiance to the wonderfully zany Holeman and Finch, the gastro-pub that Hopkins opened next door for drinking and snacking. Not the least of my motivations, too, was price. The menu at H&F is mainly small plates of Southern-inspired comfort food while Eugene’s pricey menu offered more traditional meals made with brilliant, wallet-draining attention to detail.
Now, Hopkins, who has been nominated for a 2009 James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Southeast, has revised the menu at Restaurant Eugene to feature mainly small plates too. Prices are all over the map, with the great majority of fish and meats being under $20 and most vegetables under $10. There were a mind-boggling 42 dishes on the regularly changing menu when we visited recently (Hopkins’ popular “Sunday Supper” is still available). Our server told us the menu will undergo some culling by Hopkins and Chef de Cuisine David Bies.
You have a few options here. You can order a five-course tasting for $65 or seven for $85. We ordered five apiece à la carte and spent well under the $65 price, but we did order mainly mid-priced dishes. We went this route because a) Wayne wanted specific dishes b) the server could not predict what would be on the tasting menu and c) the entire table has to order the tasting menu.
Our meal was awesome. But you do not need five full plates from this menu unless you are wanting to induce a coma. The dishes all share Hopkins’ longstanding style. Most feature seasonal ingredients from small, sustainable farms. Each dish has a strong central ingredient that is complemented by two or three others. Recently, I sent friends to eat here — before the new menu — and they complained that flavors were too subdued. I don’t find this to be true, but I have noticed that Hopkins does not resort to the palate-shocking use of flavors that has become a favored style among more theatrical chefs. My sense here is that the flavors bloom — like a flower, not like fireworks.
An example is confit of cod with roasted fingerling potatoes and green olive. Cod is mild to begin with and this kinda-sorta play on brandade heightens the creamy texture of the fish whose flavor develops slowly, contrasting with the earthy potatoes and the acidic olives. It’s sensuous but it’s also very crafty.
Aesthetics — in décor, on the plate and in the service — matter greatly to Hopkins. Preparation of she crab soup — with the creamy, roe-filled broth poured over a crab galette at the table — was worthy of a kaiseki dinner’s style. (Actually, the roe was apparently blended into the soup, but it was a stellar version of this often poorly done Charleston classic.)
Other dishes we ordered include:
Succulent braised baby fennel with preserved lemon and trout roe; a Hakurei turnip gratin with cloves of garlic confit nestled under slightly dressed arugula; sunchoke agnolotti with sunchoke chips, served over a “game jus”; chicken livers over dense, creamy grits with sweet pickled peaches; a poached egg scattered with crushed peanuts, served with bacon and shallots; veal sweetbreads with a fried duck egg, bottarga and arugula pesto; and slices of roasted duck under a bread sauce, served over creamed English peas.
Reading over our choices, I’m struck by the profusion of creamy, custardy textures. I’m not sure if this is my own preference or the two chefs’. But it’s no wonder the food seems so pleasantly comforting.
We were too immobilized by the 10 plates to consider dessert, despite our server’s encouragement. Generally, service at the restaurant is top-flight. I asked a lot of questions about ingredients and our server, Christine, never had to make a trip to the kitchen for an answer. Believe me, that is unique. Therefore Christine is Server of the Week.
We visited the Nook (1144 Piedmont Ave., 404-745-9222), the highly anticipated replacement for the Prince of Wales Pub across from Piedmont Park, a few days after its weekend opening. The space is really delightful, with the front of the pub opening almost completely onto the patio. It’s a perfect roost for spring.
I’m going to delay passing judgment on the food for several reasons. Not the least of them is the fact that a third or more of the menu was completely unavailable. That’s because the place was hit with unexpectedly huge crowds on the first (gorgeous) weekend of spring.
We did get to try the “totchos” that have created a stir on the Internet since its description in publicity material for the Nook. These are Tater Tots — a commercial brand, by the way — “smothered in goodness,” according to the menu. There are four varieties and we ordered the Cajun with shrimp, andouille sausage, onions, peppers and the nondescript yellow “cheese sauce” typical of nachos. All I can say is that I liked them about as much as I like nachos. They were easy to eat, felt completely unhealthful and probably require lots of alcohol to really come to love.
For an entrée, I ordered the menu’s most expensive dish — peanut-crusted scallops with red Thai curry and rice with green peas. After I ordered the dish, the server returned to tell me that he’d forgotten they were out of rice.
“How can you be out of rice?” I asked, noting that there are at least three grocery stores less than a mile away.
“I don’t know,” he said, “but some people are ordering it with the side of green beans amandine.”
“Uh, okay, I’ll do that,” I said, mystified.
Soon afterward, the (apparent manager) stopped by the table and asked how we were doing. I told him I found it amazing that they had run out of rice but were still serving the curry.
“We haven’t run out of rice,” he said.
The waiter came by the table. The manager told him the restaurant had not run out of rice. “Yes, we have,” the waiter said.
So the dish arrived with four jumbo scallops on a pool of pink curry sauce with some green beans. Then, a third of the way through the dish, the server reappeared … with a bowl of rice. “I got that wrong,” he said.
Whatever! The dish was good, in fact. More in a future column or on the Omnnivore blog. By the way, I have joined the present and you can now find me on Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to "friend" me. (There is no “enemy” option, except the “block” function.)