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First look: Cakes and Ale

Sustainable and chef-driven in Decatur

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I knew I was likely to love a restaurant that takes a swipe at puritans.

Cakes and Ale (254 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-377-7994) derives its name from a statement the hedonistic Toby Belch in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night makes to the puritanical butler Malvolio: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"

God knows we live in a time when many think exactly that. Almost as a backlash to our gastronomical obsessions of the last two decades, a new puritanism seems to have emerged. Just last week, I made a friend gasp when I said I'd eaten a pizza and a pint of ice cream on the same day. "Is that a mortal sin or a venial sin?" I asked.

That's not to imply that Cakes and Ale is serving sinfully unhealthy food. Quite the opposite. The restaurant is devoted to sustainable agriculture – it buys local produce, humanely raised meats and un-endangered fish. While some might argue that this is its own form of puritanism, the reality is that such practices add up to noticeably improved flavor.

The restaurant's chef-owner is Billy Allin, a South Carolina native whose first career was in financial management. While living in San Francisco, he became so captivated by that city's unparalleled culinary culture that he enrolled in the California Culinary Academy, doing an internship at Chez Panisse and, after graduation, moved with his wife, Kristin, to Napa Valley to work for chef Todd Humphries at the Martini House.

In 2004, he ended up as sous chef for Scott Peacock at Watershed, recovering his own Southern culinary heritage. He left Watershed more than a year ago to begin planning the new restaurant with Kristin. Joining them as pastry chef is Cynthia Wong, the multitalented former author of Creative Loafing's Cheap Eats column and a gifted food stylist as well as chef.

The restaurant is located in the space formerly occupied by Viet Chateau. Warning: There is only a small sign on the door and we drove up and down West Ponce de Leon several times before finding it. The interior is simple. The windowed walls are reflected in large framed mirrors. A gigantic rendering of a colorful moth dominates the dining room, which also includes a bar that seats about six.

The staff is young and attractive. Indeed, our server Michael was a dead ringer for Elijah Wood, and another one looked like Louise Brooks in her prime. Michael explained that the restaurant was still in its "soft opening" and directed our attention to a chalkboard menu of specials as well as the menu of 16 dishes.

I started with a Peacockesque dish of deviled eggs with pickled cocktail onions, carrots and cauliflower. The eggs were creamy, garnished with just a few chopped scallions. I liked them, but, like every Southern mother, mine had her own recipe, heavily laced with paprika and bits of pickle. The lack of the latter was redeemed by the side pickles. I got my first indication of the restaurant's obsession with fresh, flavorful produce with the pickled cauliflower.

Wayne ordered a starter salad of escarole, radicchio, pancetta, pistachios and warm balsamic vinaigrette. Again, nothing complicated but wonderfully savory. Next time, I'm ordering the arancini with orange and fennel pollen.

I was tempted by both the chicken and dumplings and the potato gnocchi with pork belly (which has now officially passed into the status of a fad), but selected a special of roasted pork loin with mashed potatoes and some arugula. The pork was from Gum Creek Farms in Roopville, Ga. The flavor was jarring – the kind that activates your memory, recalling family feasts from years ago. We really do forget what food produced outside factory farming tastes like.

The potatoes were enlivened with some turnip bits that were barely noticeable except for a slightly bitter aftertaste. I would have liked more, but I'm a turnip lover.

Wayne ordered skirt steak that was probably the best I've tasted since I left Texas years ago. Succulent, tender, cooked medium rare, it was washed in a sweet balsamic reduction. On the side was arugula and parmesan. There was a side special of kale available that I wish we had ordered, too.

Wong's desserts are as interesting as she is. I ordered the ginger icebox cheesecake, a tart made of classic Philadelphia cream cheese with a cookie foundation, placed over an arc of hot buttered pineapple. The ginger, a flavor I like as much as turnips, was fainter than I'd prefer. Generally, chefs are too shy in their use of ginger, I think. An exception is David Sweeney at Dynamic Dish who does amazing things with the stuff.

The better dessert was Wayne's baked Alaska that reminded me of a Russian Orthodox church with its profusion of browned meringue minarets. Strawberry ice cream formed the foundation. The dessert, to my disappointment, was not flambéed tableside. Somebody in Atlanta needs to bring back the '70s-style drama of flambéed crepes, baked Alaska and cherries jubilee. I want to see singed eyebrows!

Cakes and Ale is an important addition to our dining scene. We are seeing a decline in small, chef-driven restaurants in our city and if my first impression holds up, this will become a citywide destination. And by the way: It's inexpensive.

Here and there

Village Pizza, a Cabbagetown favorite, has reopened under the ownership of Andy Alibaksh, who also owns nearby Carroll Street Café and the popular Apres Diem in Midtown Promenade. The menu is unchanged and the food tastes the same. Only the décor has changed slightly. ...

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