The city of Decatur is our own little Mayberry, a pedestrian-friendly Hooterville. In fact, if you've never lived in a small town in the South, the only nostalgic pangs Decatur may evoke are for such TV shows ... or your childhood model train set.
It's somehow appropriate, then, the latest restaurant to open here, Farmstead 303 (303 E. Howard Ave., 404-377-3550), is in the town's classic train depot — a charming and quite large structure built in 1891. Its renovation began in 2000, when it was donated to the city of Decatur on the condition that it be moved 30 feet from the railroad tracks. The city managed that, and the space was subsequently rented to the owners of Depeaux, who spent big bucks further renovating the building's interior. But Depeaux tanked.
Enter Teri Rogers, owner of the popular, cozy Feast, which is across the street. Rogers has set herself quite a task in the old depot. Farmstead 303 seats more than 200 people and includes an upstairs bar. When the restaurant opened about a month ago, it was absolutely slammed on weekends. Its soft opening turned into a virtual riot. Servers wandered aimlessly with plates held aloft, unsure of their destination. The kitchen itself was slow and, after a month, is still requiring sometimes longish waits between courses.
But the food is worth the wait — and there are worse places to wait than on the patio of a historic building with a view of downtown Decatur.
The chef is Ryan Stewart. He became something of a cult figure a few years back when he turned the rather unlikely Glenwood into one of the city's best gastro pubs. Most recently, he was chef at Mac McGee's, also in downtown Decatur. Stewart's intention at Farmstead, obviously, is farm-to-table dining, and there's a chalkboard inside that lists many of the menu's ingredients and their sources.
Full disclosure: The chef is the husband of CL food editor, Besha Rodell (who participated in neither the assigning nor editing of this column). I know that I was recognized, at least on my second visit, when I admittedly found the service improved and the food a bit better. But friends there, also on their second visit, reported the same experience.
I've had two dinners at the restaurant. My favorite dish so far has been the menu's most expensive at $24. It is slices of roasted duck breast, placed over hoppin' john made with risotto instead of rice, alongside corn relish and a few leaves of arugula. It plays with the full range of tastes and textures. The fresh corn is naturally sweet but touched with vinegar, the duck's narrow band of exterior fat is deeply salty, the arugula adds a lively note of bitterness. The melt-in-your-mouth textures of the risotto and duck contrast to the corn's crunchiness.
Corn, this time creamed, plays a central role in another dish. It's paired with incredibly tender wild Scottish salmon, green beans and more arugula. I love creamed corn but I found this so sweet, I wondered if sugar had been added. It had not. Pile on the pepper. The dessert-like sweet intensity really needs to be tempered.
There was a similar problem with Georgia mountain trout, served with spinach, pecans, roasted red potatoes, and a fascinating beet pancake and horseradish sauce. I guess I'm implacable but, whereas the salmon was overwhelmed by sweetness, the trout also seemed too deliciously delicate in flavor for the horseradish. Just use it judiciously if at all and you'll be happy.
The only dish that I thought had a serious problem was the one I looked forward to most — grilled Georgia shrimp with stewed tomatoes, okra and rice. The shrimp were a bit overcooked and the tomatoes were too watery for the plate. Don't get me wrong. I loved the flavors. I'm nitpicking here because I know what Stewart is capable of.
All starters have been delicious, including fried chicken livers, glazed with Madeira, and served over rounds of bread and called "bruschetta." Whole okra pods, dusted with cornmeal and fried, were addictive with or without the pepper jelly for dipping. The standout was a cucumber gazpacho, afloat with grilled shrimp, bits of pickled watermelon and some jalapeño. The fried blue cheese grits with tomato gravy and more arugula were tasty but not so appealing as the other apps.
Desserts have been good but not spectacular. By far the best was a special of bourbon-glazed banana bread pudding. We've also tried the perfectly yummy but tried-and-true molten chocolate cake with ice cream. The strawberry shortcake with chantilly cream was my least fave, but this has never been a dessert I like much anywhere.
There is plenty more to sample. All of the entrées mentioned here are from the more expensive section of the menu. There are plenty of low-priced entrées for lunch or dinner, including fried chicken, a pork chop, fried flounder, meatloaf, salads and sandwiches, including Stewart's amazingly good North Carolina-style barbecued pork.
I'm getting nostalgic just thinking about it.