For the last 28 years, John Mariani of Esquire magazine has produced a list of the country's best new restaurants. This year, he makes Atlanta proud by awarding the No. 1 spot to the Optimist, the "fish camp and oyster bar" opened by Ford Fry, whose JCT Kitchen and No. 246 have been notable hits in our city.
Mariani has become a controversial figure in recent years. About a year ago, the venomously entertaining Anthony Bourdain publicly accused him of long-rumored acceptance of free meals from restaurants. The two bludgeoned one another in the AJC's Food and More blog, with critic John Kessler mercifully entering the fray with a spoiler's rationality.
I think it's true that Mariani has a strong penchant for relatively fine dining — or what's left of it. For example, his favorite design this year is of Miami's Juvia, whose opening website page announces, "Our penthouse is your penthouse." It's wit, of course, but it's not something, say, TOP FLR would emulate. Nor would the Optimist were it high above. It glitters, but with genuine wit.
Previously, I had only lunched at the Optimist. I ate well and, although a bit disconcerted by a $40 bill for two (including tip and no appetizers or alcohol), I couldn't bring myself to say the lunch wasn't worth every penny. By now, we all know that the world's oceans are being plundered faster than they can replenish themselves and "unfarmed" seafood has largely become a luxury.
When my friend Chuck O'Boyle visited last week from his new home in Providence, R.I., he was anxious to try the Optimist. Chuck was Creative Loafing's Cheap Eats writer for a brief time. That was about as good a fit as assigning Mariani to the food truck beat. Chuck was disappointed the menu did not include some "Southern fish," like the red snapper he misses in Providence. Whatever, we had a wonderful meal of chef Adam Evans' dishes:
Starters: "Frothy she-crab soup with shrimp toast." Although you'd have to be insane not to find this virtual bisque spectacular, I have never understood how a soup that isn't full of crab roe can be called "she-crab soup." I thought maybe the restaurant was sacrificing the roe out of ecological concern, but our server Amanda said the roe was blended — along with the crab meat — into the smooth soup.
"Spicy glazed octopus." In my view, this tender, charred octopus instantly becomes my favorite in town. Calabrese peppers give the dish significant burn. Juicy olives and saffron mayo deepen the flavors without detracting an iota from the octopus' flavor. Bring it.
Entrées: "Maine sea scallops." I haven't tasted scallops like these since I was a kid. Sweet and glazed until slight crispness, the fat shellfish were complemented by an oxtail marmalade — uh-huh — and brown butter-chicken jus. It's such playful (and successful) combinations that make the food at the Optimist so compelling.
"Duck-fat poached swordfish." WTF? This is actually the restaurant's signature dish, according to our server. The fish, which I feared would be something like confit, was firm and as freshly flavorful as everything else. But wait, there's more: green papaya, country ham, and peanuts. I liked it, but, truth be told, I'm getting a bit tired of country ham's appearance everywhere. I love the stuff, but then again, I used to like truffle oil, too.
Desserts: The brilliant Taria Camerino, of the defunct and much missed Sugar-Coated Radical, is in charge of desserts at all three of Fry's restaurants. At Chuck's behest, we ordered the tapioca custard with caramelized bananas and coconut tuile. It was superb, but there are much more creative choices.
I have yet to visit the oyster bar here. It offers plenty of seductive small plates like smoked haddock chowder and charred octopus with kimchi purée and candied coriander, as well as pedigreed oysters.
Complaints? As with Fry's other restaurants, the acoustics aren't the best. They're better than No. 246's to be sure. Of course, conversation on an airplane runway is easier than there. Also, we sat at a table in front of the kitchen and I'm not sure if that added to the noise.
Does the Optimist deserve to be called the best new restaurant in America? Does it deserve to be called the best in Atlanta? I long ago retired from making such judgments. I can accept designation of a restaurant as a "favorite," and this could easily become one — just as soon as my income increases. Actually, in all fairness, our meal before tip was about $100 (deducting about $15 for wine). That is quite fair for food of this quality.
If I did have to award a "best," it would be to our server Amanda. She was honest, funny, attentive, and an incredible rarity.