It's a grand game of incest and intrigue, the restaurant biz. Chefs, managers and servers follow one another from restaurant to restaurant. The gossip may get nasty and the knives may end up in back after back, but at the end of a Saturday night, everyone's just one big happy family.
It was something of a shock when I walked through the door of the new Miller Union (999 Brady Ave., 678-733-8550) and found myself face-to-face with Neal McCarthy, longtime manager of Sotto Sotto under Riccardo Ullio. I knew my cover was blown instantly and, in case I had any doubt, chef Steven Satterfield, a longtime chef for Scott Peacock at Watershed, came out to our table to say hey later. The two have opened this restaurant, named after the old Miller Union Stock Yards, in Atlanta's Westside.
There was no back-stabbing in this encounter. Both men have received the best on-the-job educations they could get in Atlanta. But I was chagrinned at how difficult the game of critical anonymity has become in our city. Critics - and I don't know one who isn't recognized frequently - have become part of the incestuous game. At least I had not met McCarthy's amazingly beautiful (and towering) wife Carolyn before.
The new restaurant - organic, local, sustainable when possible - reflects Satterfield's nine years with Peacock. The menu of straightforward dishes is heavy on the Southern accent, but subtly so. There's "griddled" poulet rouge on the menu but no fried chicken.
The interior, by the now ubiquitous ai3, similarly evokes the South without allusion to Dixie kitsch. Indeed, the restaurant - with its wooden tables and pantry-formed walls enclosing otherwise sleek spaces - is something like an architectural reverie on the Southern kitchen. The largest of the three dining rooms, where we were seated, doesn't follow this theme. In fact, it reminded us of a Paris bistro with tables crunched so closely together, it's hard not to let your fork fly to the neighboring tables to spear a taste. Happily, we were able to move to a larger table.
The restaurant had only been open a week or so when Wayne and I visited, but Satterfield has already hit his stride. We ordered nothing that could be finessed specially because we were recognized. Wayne started with a "farm egg" baked in celery cream, served with bread from Holeman & Finch. This dish instantly reminded me of the soft-boiled eggs my father used to cook when I was a child. He didn't add the subtle celery cream, which adds an almost decadent dimension to the dish.
My own starter was chicken liver mousse, served in a jar under a seal of apple jelly with some pickled okra and toasted bread on the side. The sweet and fluffy take on chopped liver came with some stone-ground mustard that I avoided at first. But adding a bit provided quite a pleasant contrast to the jelly's sweetness, as did the okra, of course.
For my entree, I ordered fork-tender pork shoulder braised in beer, served with sautéed kale and a sweet potato jacket. Wayne chose the poulet rouge, boned and grilled, served over green beans and cranberry beans. Both choices were homey-good and great examples of the difference local, well-treated vegetables make in a dish's overall taste.
We ordered two desserts. I picked the fresh chevre cheesecake with glazed cranberries. I'd classify it as the one dish that didn't really please me. It's not very different from the usual cheesecakes served with berries. Wayne's selection of three ice creams - sage, rosemary and thyme - was far better. Of course, it prompted humming of Simon & Garfunkel's classic song, despite the absence of parsley. Our favorite was the sage.
The restaurant appears to be an overnight hit, so I suggest you make reservations. We had a 45-minute wait.
In East Atlanta
I've walked by the Graveyard Tavern (1245 Glenwood Ave., 622-8686) on my way to other restaurants a zillion times. It never occurred to me to dine here until I recently got a tip that chef Justin Bright had reworked the menu and was producing some quality specials each night.
They are a terrific value. While Wayne settled for the usual Sunday prime rib - a massive slice for only $9.99 - I ordered pork loin stuffed with gorgonzola cheese under a raspberry demi-glace. On the side were grilled French green beans and chopped onions sautéed in balsamic vinegar and sherry mixed with roasted new potatoes.
The $12 special hit the spot. My only complaint - and it won't be shared by most - is the heavy amount of the reduced demi-glace. I'd rather the meat sit in a pool of it, so I can decide how much raspberry flavor I want. As I've written before, I know it's sacrilege, but I'm not crazy about fruity flavors combined with pork.
For dessert we shared a serving of the restaurant's "banana bread pudding." Our server went to great lengths to explain that it wasn't like banana pudding or really like classic bread pudding but more like "banana-nutbread pudding." Whatever, it was delicious, but not served with the rum-infused crème Anglaise that the menu promised. I have to say that without the topping, the dessert is not visually appealing. Just avert your eyes for your first taste.
Bright's regular menu includes hanger steak, blackened shrimp and polenta, mojo chicken, vegetable ravioli, a lamb panino, a starter of shrimp and lobster queso and enough else to qualify the Graveyard for gastro-pub status.
Can we call the ambiance here, um, post-goth? I'm not sure. But how can you not love a place that describes itself as "a sunny place for shady people?"