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Chefs to watch 2011

Five Atlanta culinary talents to keep an eye on

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Here we have it — a new batch of chefs who'll shape what Atlanta will be eating over the coming months. From well-known faces to brand-new restaurateurs, this crop of tastemakers is full of talent to keep an eye on.

ASHA GOMEZ

A little more than a year ago, Asha Gomez started a local supper club called Spice Route, which highlights the food of Kerala, the Southwestern region of India where she grew up. Spice Route quickly became known around town for Gomez's beautiful, soulful cooking and the embrace of her hospitality. These days, a spot at the Spice Route table is a hard ticket to come by. "We sent out the email at 9 a.m. for this month's dinner," Gomez says. "We were sold out by 9:05."

The overwhelmingly positive reception to Spice Route led Gomez to consider opening a more traditional eatery. This fall her restaurant Cardamom Hill will open at 1700 Northside Drive in Berkeley Hills, just north of the already bustling Westside. Gomez plans to serve thali plates at lunch and a selection of daily changing curries and traditional dishes at dinner presented in a modern, upscale Western style. "We're going to have a section on our menu dedicated to the American South meets the Indian south — rice grits with curried shrimp, and pork vindaloo sliders next to pulled pork sliders," says Gomez.

Cardamom Hill has the potential to be a pioneer restaurant on a number of levels. First, Atlanta has long lacked a serious Indian restaurant that elevates the cuisine to the level of fine dining. Second, for Berkeley Hills, this will be the first true destination restaurant and could change the neighborhood significantly. Third, it's sure to be a stunningly beautiful restaurant — anyone who ever visited Gomez's previous business, Neem Tree Spa, will remember her eye for luxuriant calming beauty.

JOSE REGO

"It seems that no matter what, I always end up coming back to work with Riccardo," Jose Rego says. The chef who originally teamed up with restaurateur Riccardo Ullio in the kitchen at Sotto Sotto has bounced around a bit since leaving his post there in 2006. But now he's back working with Ullio at Escorpion, the Mexican restaurant and tequila bar Ullio opened in late May.

If that sounds familiar, it's because this collaboration is reminiscent of Ullio and Rego's last dance together at Lupe, the Mexican restaurant that replaced Cuerno, Ullio's attempt at authentic Spanish cuisine. Lupe was hardly revelatory. It suffered from all the clichés of gringo-pleasing upscale Mexican food. Lupe had an air of desperation around it: Ullio's wild ambition with Cuerno and Beleza next door had fallen flat, and Lupe seemed like an attempt to regain some ground with pedestrian food and tons of tequila. It was a head-scratcher because Rego has proven he's a fantastic cook.

Remember Allegro? That strange and strangely brilliant Italian restaurant in the Dutch Valley Road spot that now houses Amuse? Allegro's mix of old-fashioned Italian grandiosity and Rego's quirky modern-meets-old-world cooking was lost on Atlanta diners, tucked away as it was in an odd building down a residential side street. But it left little doubt that the chef, when given the right outlet, is capable of greatness.

Early meals at Escorpion, before Rego came on board, had mixed success. While more promising than Lupe, the best dishes seemed to be of the gloppy, tequila-soaking variety. And while the place was packed, Ullio recognized that the food could use an upgrade.

For Ullio, and for Rego, Escorpion needs to be a success. When talent, ambition and high stakes collide, it's always interesting to watch.

RICHARD BLAIS

When have we not been watching Richard Blais? The dude has become a pop culture spectacle. His two runs on Bravo's "Top Chef" and his soap opera-style relationship with Atlanta's restaurant scene have made him our most famous and talked about chef. But beyond Flip, his over-the-top burger "boutiques," it's been a while since we've actually tasted any of Blais' cooking. What a tease: We've watched his special brand of weird genius play out on television over and over, and yet we haven't had a chance to eat it in years.

It looks as though that's about to change. Of course, there's the hot dog spot, named in such a way as to suggest Blais is just trying to annoy his (large and vocal) set of detractors: Haute Doggery. The location, which used to house San Francisco Coffee on North Highland Avenue, has been rebuilt with a towering wooden protrusion and now somewhat resembles the Death Star ("A Death Star full of wieners," as my editor so helpfully put it). Haute Doggery, or HD, is set to open some time this fall.

But wieners aside, the real excitement is the Spence, which looks to be the first real Blais restaurant we've seen since Element. Sure, there was Home, the Tom Catherall collaboration that came on the heels of Blais' first "Top Chef" run, but I still like to believe that too much concept was foisted on the chef for that particular venture to accurately display his talent. The Spence, in the old Globe spot in Technology Square, is a collaboration between Blais and Concentrics, but Blais has assured me that the restaurant group is not overprescribing what the chef does with the menu or concept.

"This will be my restaurant. There won't be a theme," he says. What does that mean? "Family offerings for larger parties focusing on larger cuts of meat or whole animals. Think steamship round or barbecued lamb," says Blais. "The design will be warm and organic, and I'm intentionally not buying any white, glossy plates. I'm not at all focused on fanciful presentation for the Spence."

Blais also has a book deal in the works, which he says will "feature 100 to 125 recipes and be woven with personal short stories and insider industry takes and tips." Sounds like we won't be done watching Blais any time soon.

COURTESY DOUG TURBUSH
  • Courtesy Doug Turbush

DOUG TURBUSH

Doug Turbush worked as a chef with restaurant group Buckhead Life for 12 years, most recently as the chef at its upscale Asian concept Bluepointe. But last year, he decided a change was in order. So he struck out, got a loan from a bank and secured a spot of his own. "I did it all on my own, without investors," Turbush says. "It's just me and the bank, so I'm taking all the risk."

The result is Seed, slated to open in Marietta at the end of October. Neither a traditional farm-to-table restaurant nor a repeat of the pan-Asian flavors he was known for at Bluepointe, Seed will be a fusion of Turbush's culinary experience. "It's going to be kind of a culmination of my background in different types of cuisine — we wont be limited, and it won't be an Asian sushi place. We'll incorporate Asian and Latin flavors, and some of what I've picked up living in the South for the past 12 years."

While a chef leaving a big restaurant group and striking out on his own is the oldest story in Atlanta, what makes Seed and Turbush interesting is the location he's chosen for his project. Just as Kevin Rathbun was seen as a risk taker when he opened Rathbun's on Krog Street, Turbush is taking a concept that has "intown" written all over it and putting it in East Cobb. It's a sign of trickle-down gastronomics, and it bodes well for the city as a whole.

TOM NAITO

Tomo, the small Japanese restaurant in Vinings owned by chef Tom Naito, has long been a favorite of critics and dedicated foodies. But the location has perhaps kept Naito from widespread recognition as one of the city's best chefs. In November of 2009, Naito announced he was planning to open a restaurant in Buckhead, in the new Ritz-Carlton Residences. Originally conceived of as a second location, Naito announced in July that he'd be closing his Vinings location to focus on Buckhead.

When asked about the timeline for his new establishment, initially slated to open last April, Naito laughs. "I'm trying hard ... three or four weeks." But he adds that it's partially contingent on selling the current location. What can we expect from the new restaurant? "I want to do the same thing. More varieties of cooked food, because there's a bigger kitchen.

"I have a grill station, so I can do some grilling — not just meat, but fish as well." He's also looking to add a touch of molecular gastronomy to the mix. "The main thing is the cooking and the sushi and sashimi. But I'm going to add a little touch of the molecular gastronomy. I'll add it here and there just for the garnish, just a little fun. That's the plan, anyway."

Changes or not, in the months that follow, we'll see whether Naito can continue the legacy of pristine, creative Japanese cooking he created in Vinings, and whether the new, more prominent location will catapult him to the star status he deserves.

Additional reporting by Gwynedd Stuart.

Next: Chefs to keep watching

Chefs to keep watching: Where are the folks now we told you to watch then?

Robert Phalen, Chef to watch in August 2010
In 2010, Robert Phalen was wowing Atlantans with his originality and depth of flavor at Holy Taco, which received a three-star review from the AJC in February 2011. Now, Phalen is chef at One Eared Stag, a new restaurant that's getting rave reviews from local press and has breathed new, refreshing life into Atlanta's farm-to-table trend.

Ford Fry and Drew Belline, Chefs to watch in December 2010
Ford Fry enjoyed success at JCT. Kitchen, and his latest venture with chef Drew Belline, No. 246, has so far lived up to expectations. Now Fry is planning on opening yet another restaurant - a seafood place on the Westside that's slated to open in March 2012.

Whitney Otawka, Chef to watch in December 2010
Whitney Otawka has worked at Five and Ten in Athens, Restaurant Eugene, and Holeman and Finch, and now is chef at Cumberland Island's Greyfield Inn. Rumor is that she'll be a contestant on the newest season of "Top Chef," which is filming in Texas.

Hugh Acheson, Chef to watch in August 2010
Since August 2010, Acheson has risen to fame from his stint as a contestant on season three of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters." He's still the chef/partner at Five and Ten and the National in Athens, and Empire State South in Atlanta, but his Bravo fame rolls on as well. If Otawka indeed is a contestant on the next regular season of "Top Chef," she may be facing her former boss as a judge: It was announced a few weeks ago that Acheson will serve as a regular judge on "Top Chef" Texas.

Dan Latham, Chef to watch December 2010
Latham came to our attention as a chef-of-interest because of his mobile pizza operation, Moto Bene. On Aug. 7, Farm Burger announced that Latham will serve as chef at its new Buckhead location, slated to open in "late summer." Which means any day now ...

Nick Melvin, Chef to watch in August 2010
Nick Melvin left his post as chef de cuisine at Empire State South a few months after the restaurant opened in 2010. He now serves as chef de cuisine for Rosebud, while Ryan Smith (another 2010 chef to watch) has taken over as chef at Empire State South.

— Katie Valentine

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