Cuisine has never been so coddled, deconstructed and re-imagined as it is these days. Ingredients are freeze-dried, foamed and put to multiple uses on one plate. Chefs are pushing the boundaries of science and flavor. It's exciting. It's also exhausting.
I knew a chef who fired her pastry chef because he said, "I hate simple." Simple is an aesthetic that's somehow acquired a bad rap over the past 50 years in American cooking, despite simplicity being the thing we excel at. I'm all for molecular gastronomy and difficult technique, but honest, straightforward American food is a beautiful thing. I never tire of it. And it's not as easy to do well as you might think.
Cakes and Ale in Decatur embraces simplicity at its most pleasing. Chef Billy Allin, who worked for two years as Watershed's sous chef under Scott Peacock, has created an unpretentious menu focused on everyday ingredients. There's a strong commitment to community and environment, with locally procured produce and sustainably raised meats and seafood. The small dining room, on the street corner that formerly housed Viet Chateau, is sparsely but elegantly decorated, and black-clad waiters have an easygoing professionalism that's appropriate to the neighborhood vibe.
For the most part, Allin does what you wish you had time to do at home. One of his best dishes presents half a baked chicken in all its juicy, crispy glory. A few weeks back fresh spinach accompanied the chicken, but it wasn't the boring, garlic-heavy sauté we've come to expect from restaurant greens. Instead, Allin chopped the spinach coarsely, releasing the vegetable's minerally, deep-green character.
Allin has a keen salad sensibility, particularly when it comes to picnic-style, mayonnaise-based dishes. In late April, he was serving a beguiling combination of potato, celery leaves, salami strips and mussels. It was a classic potato salad rethought and perfectly composed, every ingredient with a purposeful role to play in texture and flavor. On the current menu, crunchy baby carrots are paired with cucumbers and radish then mellowed by Allin's vinegar-and-mayonnaise dressing. A toasted baguette round on the plate is smeared with deftly seasoned pork rillettes.
Simplicity can also be a pitfall, especially when price is taken into consideration. If I'm going to pay $8 for four devilled eggs, they had better be the best damn devilled eggs I've ever eaten. Allin's lean more toward underwhelming – the yolks are whipped but left alone, and the pickles and onions are presented on the side. I was hard pressed to find any pimentos in Allin's $9 pimento cheese ball, which, despite being round and not log-shaped, was more like a cheese log. A mash of cream cheese and cheddar was coated in pecans and served with benne wafers and celery sticks. I missed the sweet tang that pimentos give a huge hunk of rich cheese. A $14 entree of asparagus and local salad greens came with a fried egg and a small piece of toast, but there was no one component that held the dish together and made it feel substantial enough to act as dinner.
The Cakes and Ale burger combines ground beef with pork belly, and the meat has a comforting whisper of porcine flavor and temperament. The downside is that the burger must be cooked to medium well, so it loses some of its juiciness and sex appeal in the process. The accompanying shoestring fries (also available as an appetizer) are perfectly crisp and perfectly addictive.
Cakes and Ale employs Cynthia Wong as its pasty chef, and if that name sounds familiar, it might be because she used to freelance for Creative Loafing. I never worked with or knew Wong (she stopped writing for the paper before I was hired), and therefore have no qualms about declaring that her desserts are some of the best to come along in quite some time. She embraces the same steady American aesthetic that works so well for Allin, taking seasonal ingredients and doctoring them only enough to make them shine. Georgia strawberry trifle allows the berries' intense sweetness to burst through layers of whipped cream. Wong's rhubarb crisp shines as an example of the medium – the sweet/tart fruit, the topping with the exact ratio of sugar crunch to offset the rhubarb without overwhelming it. A brownie sundae highlights wickedly bitter chocolate and righteously reclaims the brownie for people over 12.
It's worth stopping into Cakes and Ale just for coffee (the menu offers three varieties from Counter Culture) and phatty cakes, Wong's ingenious take on the cookie. Vaguely resembling puffed-up Oreos, the soft and moist gingerbread cakes sandwich a luscious mascarpone filling. They embody pastry cooking at its most playful and satisfying.
Cakes and Ale plays a softer, friendlier tune than much of what we have come to expect from our exciting new restaurants. But that in itself is exciting, and it gives us the opportunity to incorporate a restaurant into our lives rather than view dining as a spectacle. Some nights you want to be dazzled by the circus, but some nights you just want a simple roast chicken made with integrity and love.