Reviewing restaurants is a tricky game. We want to be fair, to give credit where it’s due, and to be respectful of the heart and hard work someone has put into a business. For that reason, we have guidelines — at CL we never do a full starred review before a restaurant has been open one month. A month isn't a lot of time, and I often feel as though it’s not enough. A restaurant can take a few months to become what it’s destined to be.
So why not wait those few months to review? Because to be a part of the conversation, we need to weigh in early. By the time three months have gone by, people are talking about something new.
When I review, I rate based on what the restaurant is at the time, not based on what I expect the restaurant to become. This can be frustrating, for me and, I’m sure, for the chefs and owners of the restaurants. Often I can see the potential, but I have no way to say for sure whether that potential will be met.
For that reason I’ve decided to revisit some restaurants I felt had more potential than they achieved in those first few months. I wanted a chance to update star ratings and to give credit to businesses that are constantly evolving, and in these cases, becoming better.
The Hil, 3 stars
When the Hil opened in the fall of 2007, I gave the restaurant a hard time for mirroring the downfalls of Serenbe, its home community, too well. Although gorgeous, and dedicated to the principals of sustainability, the Hil lacked personality. Chef Hilary White seemed to have good intentions, but the cooking was tepid and sometimes sloppy.
In the 18 months since my review, the Hil has addressed many of the original weaknesses, and White's learned how to do justice to the beautiful produce available from Serenbe Farms.
To showcase outrageously fresh bibb lettuce, White composes a salad of grapefruit segments and “crispy” avocado — slices of luscious green that have been tempura-fried lightly and quickly, leaving the avocado's texture and flavor completely intact. Paired with the acid of the grapefruit and the crunch of the delicately green lettuce, it's a delightfully fresh, expertly composed salad.
The restaurant excels at simple beauty, in its classic American setting and in its flavor combinations. Cauliflower has just the right amount of lemon and caramelized edges to set it off. The antipasto plate will have you moving appreciatively from the warm semolina bread to the creamy feta cheese to the cured meats and pickled veggies.
I’m still not sold on the chicken pot pie, although it's improved dramatically since I first tasted it. Seasoning and consistency, as well as crust, are all spot on, but I still found the broth watery.
Service has improved as well, with a more professional, less ditzy demeanor. Servers could use a brush-up course on wine service, though, from how to discuss wine to how to serve wine.
I still have a gut reaction to the all-round perfection of Serenbe, to the modern country club vibe and feel of exclusivity. But there’s no doubt that the Hil’s food now lives up to its surroundings, in quality as well as aspirations.
9110 Selbourne Lane, Suite 110, Palmetto. 770-463-6040. www.the-hil.com. Dinner: Wed.-Sun., 5-9 p.m.; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Full bar. Street parking.
Cakes & Ale, 4 stars
The second I stepped in to Cakes & Ale last spring, I knew it was the restaurant I'd been waiting for: neighborhood friendly, obviously chef-driven, simple yet quirky, and full of personality. The Decatur spot led by chef Billy Allin promised to be exactly what our city needed.
There have always been stars on Allin’s menu: the arancini, crispy rice balls oozing with cheese and enrobed in a whisper of fennel pollen; the simple roast chicken; the now legendary dessert phatty cakes. But early on, too many dishes fell just short of perfection, and some veered into flatness.
It seems as though every time I visit, the restaurant gets better. Allin takes Southern home cooking and refines it in a way that's both soulful and precise.
Spring shines through in a serving of chicken and dumplings, the best version of this dish I’ve had in Atlanta, showcasing gnocci-like dumplings floating in a savory stew of peas, veggies and and herbs. A pork chop is pounded, breaded, and deliriously crispy and tender.
Cakes & Ale also gets points for aesthetics and unexpected extras. Corina Darold, one of the best barkeeps in the city, serves some wickedly good cocktails in lovely vintage glassware. A pineapple gimlet is all puckery fruit-infused vodka with a surprising (and surprisingly delicious) kick of habanero on the finish.
254 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-377-7994. www.cakesandalerestaurant.com. Tues.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Street parking.
Repast, 4 stars
Repast was one of the first restaurants I reviewed when I came to Atlanta, and boy did it test my rookie chops. I loved the space and the concept, but had mixed feelings about the execution, and was slightly horrified by the amateurish service.
Now there’s no doubt in my mind that Repast is one of Atlanta’s best restaurants, in vision, execution and service.
Husband and wife team Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai go from classic French to boldly Asian to straightforward bistro fare in a way that many American chefs aspire to but few manage.
An escargot tart appetizer sports a wildly rich and cheesy crust, and cradles a delicate egg filling holding four tender and flavorful snails. Octopus carpaccio flays out paper-thin and beautiful across the plate, offset by delicate ponzu and fennel.
Striped bass sits atop a classic Japanese kombu dashi broth, singing in savory oceanic intensity. The accompanying Brussels sprouts wink at the cabbage found in many classic Japanese dishes, but bring a whole new flavor and crunch here. Sometimes the obvious leap is the brilliant leap.
Repast has one of the better wine lists in the city, and a staff that knows it back and front. In fact, the restaurant's floor staff has a remarkable combined culinary IQ. My only complaint is that there sometimes aren’t enough of them. One recent evening, two waiters for the entire floor and bar couldn't handle a full restaurant.
Which is too bad, because Repast deserves to be full every night.
620 N. Glen Iris Drive. 404-870-8707. www.repastrestaurant.com. Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking.