In this era of market testing and pandering to the imagined whims of customers, I find that the most successful restaurants are often those where the chefs make exactly what they themselves would want to eat.
At Holeman and Finch, the self-described Public House that acts as a low-key younger sibling to Restaurant Eugene, the menu makes no sense, is wholly unbalanced and would scare the bejesus out of most fiscal-minded restaurateurs. Pig's ears, raw steak, bone marrow and anchovy spread are exactly the types of dishes chefs have been trying to talk worried owners into serving for years. It's practically impossible to cobble together something resembling a balanced meal at Holeman and Finch, but it barely matters. To hell with balance and logic – this place is awesome.
What do most chefs want to eat? Meat and liquor. It's easy to imagine owners Linton Hopkins and Greg Best, both widely praised for their work at Restaurant Eugene as chef and barman, respectively, gleefully planning the concept and menu for their new venture. Add young chef Tony Seichrist to the mix and the imaginary conversation becomes even more vibrant. Let's cure our own meats, bake our own bread, recreate quality versions of greasy-spoon comfort foods, and serve it all with cocktails and beers and wine that we'd want to drink. Dude, let's spend the rest of our lives hanging out at the bar we've always wanted to go to.
Before all these plans were made, Holeman and Finch was conceived as a place to showcase Best's cocktails. Despite having garnered a following behind Restaurant Eugene's tiny bar as the most daring and inventive mixologist in town, Best's creations deserved their own venue. His drinks display as much creativity as any dish made by any chef in town. The current cocktail list ranges from light and summery to deeply brooding to riotously tropical. La Piña blends blanco tequila with pineapple juice and house-made lavender soda. Spice and perfume slash though the ripe fruit intensity and cause the drinker to rethink tequila's possibilities. The utterly refreshing Dastardly Deed brings basil to its rightful home in a martini glass with vodka, lime and cane syrup. From there the drinks get darker and more complex, deliciously pairing cognac with sherry and bitters in the Tahitian Moon, or veering into the slightly medicinal, but appealingly masculine flavor of the Vieux Carré Cocktail.
Holeman and Finch's spacious glassed-in bar area is an ode to Best's aesthetic, and showcases the bottles as objects of beauty with a hint of science lab. The space borrows themes from American nostalgia within its modern setting at Buckhead's Aramore condo building. The design honors Main Street's butcher shop in the glass cases of hanging meat, and Main Street's pharmacy in its bar and museum-quality original Coke advertising prints from the '40s. The Coke adoration is more than skin-deep. The restaurant is working with the company as a laboratory for perfecting the way the drink is served, and also as an experiment in grassroots marketing.
The food selection is unapologetically meat-centric and heavy. Every time I dined there I ordered a bunch of dishes and watched as my table filled up with rich, mainly yellow and brown food. But what fun, and what great food to drink to. Finally, a pimento cheese I can rally behind, rich with pimentos and priced right at $5. House-cured meats hum with the slick funk of unadulterated animal fat, particularly the lardo, which delivers a perfect mouthful of fat slightly tempered by a hint of smoke. Roasted sweetbreads almost escape outrageous richness atop tender sweet and vinegary greens, but the addition of hog jowls raises the stakes and makes for a wickedly delicious study in highbrow/lowbrow Southern cooking.
Even nonmeat dishes sit firmly in the revel-in-richness camp. Griddle-cooked hen of the woods mushrooms are wonderfully crispy and oily over polenta, the flavor ratcheted up with Parmesan. Broiled goat cheese served in a cast iron dish with fingerling potatoes and melting leeks invokes a modern Southern casserole made with pedigreed ingredients.
In fact, many of the best dishes here take classic comfort, and even junk foods, and reimagine them as high-quality doppelgangers. What happens when you make fish fingers out of fresh catfish and the perfect ratio of ultracrunchy crust? Savory, piping-hot bar snacks that still have a faint hint of the muddy river they came from. What happens when you take a basic fast-food cheeseburger and make your own bun, pickles and ketchup, and use good beef? A melting, greasy paragon of what a burger should be. Who said a burger should be gourmet? It shouldn't. It should be nasty fun. It should be this exactly.
I did encounter missteps, most of them minor and one of them major. I'm an ardent lover of bone marrow, but the marrow I had here was bad, as in it was probably a day too old. It tasted skanky. I've heard raves from others and believe that it's usually wonderful, but for such an elusive dish I was sorely disappointed.
But there are few disappointments here, and much to celebrate. Making the food that you'd want to eat seems so obvious, but it's a luxury denied to many chefs in the name of good business sense.
I hope Holeman and Finch's growing crowds and accolades will prove that money and love can coexist harmoniously in the same greasy, unbalanced, totally awesome restaurant.