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JCT Kitchen: Balancing act

The sweet harmony of Southern tradition and innovation

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The next time my in-laws come to town, I'm taking them to JCT Kitchen. The new upscale Southern spot in the Westside space behind Star Provisions is just the kind of classy, safe food that in-laws such as mine love. Everything here is a little country club, a little down-home and a little Food Network. Perfect.

Although, my mother-in-law would not stand for the mac-n-cheese that JCT Kitchen serves under its fried chicken. She happens to make the South's best mac-n-cheese, all cheesy and crispy, and JCT Kitchen's version lacks cheese and has more of a cream-sauce base. She also wouldn't stand for the collards, which are sweet. The added sugar detracts from the cleansing effect that a side of collards has on an otherwise fatty plate of food. I would need to steer her away from those dishes.

Instead, I'd steer her toward the "chicken and dumplings," a delicious dish that should rightfully be called "chicken braised in red wine over gnocchi." She would probably be incensed, though, that JCT had co-opted the name of a Southern specialty for a very French-Italian dish. Sigh. Maybe I shouldn't bring them here after all.

JCT Kitchen struggles with the very real challenge of how to take Southern food and gussy it up while not offending die-hard traditionalists. In my experience, there are only two successful routes to take when tackling the Southern fine-dining quandary. The first is to go totally traditional, but to do it with the best ingredients and technique possible. Superfresh, super high-quality food, even country Southern food, is still hard to come by; customers are grateful when they find it. The other way is to add a modern spin, applying New American and Californian twists to Southern staples.

Make no mistake; this is a fusion as difficult to pull off as any other, with just as many pitfalls. But when it's done well, with assurance and grace, there is a huge possibility for whimsy and delight.

JCT Kitchen seems to sit more comfortably in the traditionalist camp, but chef Ford Fry can't help veering into the fusion lane, even if it's only to give coq au vin a Southern name. Fry was for years the chef at the recently defunct Eatzi's, and before that was the chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Aspen, Colo. He told me via phone that he had a lot of ideas for his own restaurant during the planning stages, from an upscale taqueria to an urban barbecue joint, but that the space in Howell Mill's Westside Urban Market seemed right for a Southern concept. Certainly, the beige and cream-colored room, with its appealing industrial patio space, represents the urban/country dichotomy of Atlanta's personality. For the most part, the food follows suit.

The aforementioned fried chicken is served with a side of perfectly cooked, fresh green beans. The breading on the chicken is slightly heavy for my tastes, but the moist chicken underneath has that wonderful juices-sealed-in quality that make us fried-chicken freaks in the first place. Shrimp and grits with a sauce that looked and tasted a little like redeye gravy easily passed muster with this shrimp-and-grits fanatic. Oysters Rockefeller gets the Southern treatment by means of frying the oysters (although it should be noted that the dish was invented in New Orleans, already making it Southern). But fresh creamed spinach with fried oysters and bacon is good no matter what you call it.

Oh, and then there are the fries. As a side for a lunch sandwich or alone as an appetizer flecked with grated Parmesan and the faintest touch of truffle, these thin beauties are moist and chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside – a paragon of the form.

Obviously, there's more at stake than my in-laws' approval, and unfortunately there's more to complain about than the beatdown JCT Kitchen's mac-n-cheese would get from my North Carolina folks' version. Grilled salmon with "un-creamed corn" (you mean corn?) and sunchokes would have been a dream if the fish hadn't been overcooked to a well-done dry. A seafood pan stew was too reliant on a heavy tomato sauce, giving it an off-putting Italian-American edge. There's that fusion again, tipping toward displeasure.

But there are small joys at JCT that can't be ignored. The wine program, while relying heavily on New World producers (particularly the whites), is well-executed, with a half-glass option and an abundance of lesser-known labels. Service is personable and pleasant, with some lags here and there, but you wouldn't notice if you weren't in a hurry.

One place where the balancing act works perfectly is on the dessert menu. Aria's Kathryn King consulted on the desserts, and so the exemplary execution is no surprise. The gingerbread pudding with lemon cream is dense, warm, gooey in the right places and crispy on the corners – a dream of a dessert. Basil ice cream (the best flavor of ice cream ever invented, by the way) oddly complements a luscious tapioca pudding. You may not be able to tell if the quirky ice cream really goes with the old-fashioned pudding, but they are both so delicious in their own right it ceases to matter. Fried apple pie is reminiscent of McDonald's hot apple pie, and I mean that as a compliment. I have long believed that apple pie is the only item worth considering on the McDonald's menu – how awesome, deep-fried pastry! The version at JCT takes the concept and refines it, giving us a flaky, light crust and a high-class turnover-style pie, with a giddily good, burning-hot filling.

It's interesting how JCT does best at the hardest aspects of running a restaurant. It's hard to get a staff that is caring and competent. It's difficult to dedicate as much care to a dessert menu as these folks do, and to hit such highs well before chocolate cake even comes into question (they have a good version, but you'd be crazy to choose it over the other stuff). Dammit, perfect fries aren't easy to come by. It makes me feel that the downfalls here – the overcooked fish, the bland mac-n-cheese – are likely to remedy themselves over time.

That's the easy part. The hard part is talent and integrity, and it's obvious JCT Kitchen has both.

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