There are at least two certainties in the contemporary Atlanta food scene: swanky, grass-fed beef burgers and upscale Southern cuisine. While the former seems to have lost some of its velocity, the latter shows no signs of slowing. Some call it Southern chic, or nouveau Southern if you're feeling fancy. In other parts of the country, Southern cuisine has just begun to emerge. The 2012 Zagat guide to New York City named Southern food the year's top trend. But Atlanta has been riding this merry-go-round of the South's culinary revival for years, and it's starting to show. These days I frequently order deviled eggs and the like, but not without secretly hoping that one day soon I'll be whisked away to a place where no one's ever heard of fried green tomatoes or pimento cheese; for a little while, at least. But for now, I'm in downtown Atlanta at White Oak Kitchen and Cocktails (WOKC) and deviled eggs are what's for dinner.
The restaurant's design is a familiar but elegant exercise in farmhouse industrial chic. An installation of old Jack Daniel's whiskey barrels gives WOKC's sprawling bar area instant down-home cred. The cityscape on the other side of the restaurant's glass wall offers a refreshing urban backdrop to executive chef Ben Vaughn's creative country cooking. Less refreshing are the banquettes lined with avocado-green vinyl that call to mind the dining area of a Hampton or Holiday Inn. "Where's the continental breakfast?" one of my dinner companions joked.
A glance at the menu restores the air of rustic charm. Dishes are listed simply by the name of their main ingredient: onions, tomatoes, shrimp, etc. A newcomer from Memphis, executive Vaughn is apparently seeking a fresh start in the wake of several unsuccessful ventures. But in the spirit of new beginnings and Southern hospitality, let's hope he's tweaked his game plan and is ready to put lessons learned to good use.
WOKC's menu draws on a wide range of influence, Southern and beyond. Things like kippered Arkansas caviar, shaved mirliton (chayote squash), and Tupelo honey can be found alongside a Tallegio agrodolce, green papaya, and baked ratatouille. Stylistically, Vaughn's menu is a balancing act of risky and safe, and when the risks manifest in playful, inventive riffs on what's familiar, they yield the most rewards.
Deviled eggs with bacon, charred leeks, and oven-dried tomatoes seemed like a safe place to start. The hollowed-out egg whites are layered with a sweet tomato mixture before the filling, bright and yolky, is piped into the void. Truthfully, I preferred the filling on its own, unencumbered by the extra sugar from the tomato.
An appetizer of Pencil Cob grits, Tennessee tomme, melted chanterelle mushrooms, and oil-cured porcinis is surprisingly light. Despite the cheesy threads that cling to the fork as hand makes way for mouth, the dish is somehow rich without being heavy. Elsewhere, the odd, intriguing oyster bread pudding is a prickle of surprise and delight. A quick dissection reveals almost imperceptible bits of oyster, but the chemistry between dense, seafood-savory chunks of moist bread and a silken sauce of lemon and butter is undeniable. Another spirited riff on a provincial classic is the three-onion brûlé and turnip chips. A lightly charred cipollini sits atop the brûlé with shreds of pickled onion. By itself, the custard is cloyingly sweet. But a chip topped with all three tastes almost identical to a textbook French onion dip.
As for entrées, I sampled two: The caramel fried chicken with pan gravy served with Fleur de Sel potato chips, and the short rib au Poivre. A generous portion of tender chicken breast encased in thick, well-seasoned breading would have been much more enjoyable had the gravy not been plagued once again by a distracting sweetness. The short rib, on the other hand, was tender enough to eat with a spoon. A peppery crust holds up just long enough for you to realize it's there before the meat melts easily in your mouth. Al dente, French-cut green beans and pomme frites complete the dish's familiar comfort-food circle.
Despite the lavish bar area, the cocktails, or at least the three that I've imbibed, were more than a little sweet and sadly one-dimensional. The Blue Sky cocktail made with Death's Door Gin, cracked pepper syrup, and blueberry was the most perplexing. Imagine the aroma of green algae and lake followed by a sucker punch of gin and fruit that's far more sucker than punch.
As a food writer, pointing out that fancified Southern cuisine has become cliché is becoming cliché, but Vaughn's menu is speckled with just enough imagination to warrant a seat on an already crowded bus. But improved consistency and execution on all fronts — in the kitchen, behind the bar, and on the floor — will dictate whether Vaughn and WOKC make the long haul or fade into the white noise of downtown's dining desert.