My, how far we've come. When I arrived in Atlanta a little under four years ago, the Westside was barely more than a collection of warehouses, wholesale fabric stores, and a smattering of pioneer galleries. Sure, Octane sat perched on the crux of Howell Mill Road and Marietta Street, and just up the road West Egg, Bacchanalia and Star Provisions represented what was coming down the pike for this neighborhood. But it hardly held the hottest-'hood-in-town status it does today, particularly as a dining destination.
At the same time, I spent most of my first year here complaining about the lack of small, chef-driven restaurants. It seemed to me that Atlanta's main concern was glitz, with food and authenticity coming in last on the list of restaurant priorities.
A restaurant like Bocado would have been a revelation back then. Situated across the street from Octane, the restaurant's scale, location, appearance and mission are exactly what was missing from Atlanta circa 2005. The space, designed by design firm du jour, ai3, has an airy, modern loft-like feel, with exposed bricks, polished concrete floors, and blond wood tables, but it feels intimate and relaxed. The menu, created to be flexible and sharable, speaks most clearly of the aspirations and inspirations of a talented chef.
The modest scale and neighborhood-centric vibe are actually a first for chef Todd Ginsberg. Ginsberg has an impressive resume, stretching from the Culinary Institute of America to the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton (under Joel Antunes) to Paris to Ducasse in New York City. He returned to Atlanta most recently to open TAP for restaurant group behemoth Concentrics and was briefly the chef at the now closed Trois. Ginsberg's style is tight and flavor-driven, and there's no doubting his classical training. Correct seasoning, bold contrasts and elegance are present in almost every dish. But his style fits right into this modern, airy space, particularly at lunch when sandwiches take the limelight.
Roasted eggplant, cauliflower and a smattering of pickled vegetables are packed into a baguette roll, complemented by a spicy aioli. The texture of the eggplant and the acid in the veggies made me think of Vietnamese bahn mi, but the cauliflower crunch is delightfully unexpected.
At lunch, the bar area is often crowded with office folks, almost all of them there for the burger and herbed fries. This is a classic burger – two patties, cheese, house-made pickles, soft bun. It has just the right amount of grease and nostalgia without compromising quality.
At dinner, the menu is made up mainly of "shared plates," as well as a couple of sandwiches and a few entrées. Some of these dishes are actually more like side items, albeit extremely coddled side items, such as Brussels sprouts with thyme, lemon and parmesan, or cauliflower with capers and a perky sauce that tastes a little like hollandaise shot through with white anchovy.
Other shared plates are more substantial, such as fork-tender veal cheek, a pure comfort of a dish served with braised fennel and turnips over grits. The oyster stew had the soothing warmth of great chowder, all cream and bacon and perfectly diced carrots, but hearty and slightly deconstructed. I did find the dollop of mashed potatoes in the center of the plate a bit too much like filler, especially seeing as there were only three oysters in my small bowl of stew. But there was no arguing with the flavor of the dish.
I applaud this style of eating – the casual, sociable succession of small plates. But despite a menu that's focused on nibbles and sharing, the kitchen struggles with issues of pacing. One evening, my dining companion and I ordered four dishes from the shared plates section of the menu, and one entrée. I assumed they would spread the five dishes out, and I asked the waiter to tell the kitchen to send the dishes in whatever order they thought best. Instead, we received the four first dishes all at once, crowding the table and making it difficult to get to everything while it was still hot. After they had been cleared, we waited at least 10 minutes for the lone entree – a flaky, delicate piece of flounder over lemony Swiss chard, fingerling potatoes and capers. We passed it back and forth, fighting over the last few bites. With all this talk of sharing, it makes no sense to pace a meal in the traditional appetizer, cleared table, entrée format, unless the guest orders that way.
My only other frustration with Bocado is the sparse and lacking wine selection. The look and the feel of the restaurant, as well as the menu, scream for thoughtful wine choices. The place could easily morph into a full-fledged wine bar without much tinkering of the concept. But the wine list is short, and the whites in particular are disappointing. On a recent evening, all of the six choices were domestic, mostly from California. The reds at least offer a couple of Spanish varieties, a nod to the vaguely Spanish theme of the restaurant (the restaurant's name is Spanish – not much else is). But even here, the list veers toward safety over wines that would truly complement Ginsberg's food.
Luckily, issues such as pacing and wine selection are things that are easily changed or learned. What's harder to learn is tone, taste and talent. Fortunately, Bocado has these elements locked down, and the Westside and Atlanta are even more delicious as a result.