"It's a stupid name," my sister says. "They know their name is stupid, right?"
We are walking up the street toward Virginia-Highland's newest restaurant, Goin' Coastal.
"I kind of like it," I say.
"It sounds like they're gonna go crazy and kill all their customers!" my sister protests.
When we arrive, it seems as though the hostess does want to kill all the customers. In fact, she looks like she's about to cry. The dining room, a small double storefront set into the street in muted blues and beiges with black-and-white photo accents, like the most tasteful beach house on the block, is packed to capacity. Crowds swell around the cramped bar. "Your table should be ready ... soon," she says. "I'm sorry. It's been the worst night ever."
Waiting outside in the late summer evening, sharing sidewalk space with families partaking in goodies from neighboring Paolo's Gelato, it's easy to see why the crowds have descended on Goin' Coastal with enough enthusiasm to make a hostess cry. The restaurant feels like a true neighborhood eatery. At the bar, strangers become friends, squished together as they wait for their tables. In the dining room, families eat bowls of peel-and-eat shrimp. Goin' Coastal isn't big or corporate or trendy. It feels honest.
And despite its gimmicky name, the kitchen is turning out some relatively serious seafood.
Not that anything here is revelatory. Goin' Coastal's game is all about freshness, and cooking food in a way that honors that straight-off-the-boat quality. Although there are some detours on the road to Freshville.
Skip the breading-heavy gator bites, which are indeed alligator but are about as interesting to eat as popcorn chicken, and served with a vaguely Asian spicy/sweet sauce that tastes like corn syrup and chili oil. Try not to fill up on the fluffy cornbread that arrives on the table, which is very much like corn-flavored birthday cake (seriously — imagine it with some buttercream, and we're in sheet cake central). Skip the crab-and-shrimp dip, unless you're a huge fan of hot mayo with fishy bits. The dip is rich, and fun in a kind of gooey, trampy way, but unworthy of serious attention.
Don't skip the oysters, especially the Rockefeller, piled high with spinach and smoky bacon.
The high points of a meal here come with the entrées. A combination steamed platter provides a huge plate of chubby shrimp, cooked in a classic mixture of bay, cayenne, and coriander, and bursts with saline, savory goodness. The prehistoric arachnid appeal of a half a crab splays out across the plate, the meat within just the right combination of soft and resistant.
That same jumble of seafood appears in the Lowcountry bouillabaisse — fat crab legs, plump shrimp, and the addition of tiny bursts of sweet bay scallops, and big clean-tasting mussels. The somewhat spicy tomato-based broth is infinitely sopable. It's the kind of meal you want when you're looking for a huge bowl of mess to stick your face in and come out smiling and satiated.
The fish selection changes daily and is scrawled on blackboards around the room. Swordfish, trout, amberjack — I've had each of these, cooked simply and seasoned well, never dried out, never undercooked, served with the restaurant's fresh-tasting collards or pleasingly gluggy corn-and-jalapeño pudding. There's something remarkably reassuring about a decently cooked piece of fish, especially nestled against comforting Southern sides. (A word about sides — the vegetable of the day is reliable, grits are coarse and rich and cheesy, hushpuppies are a tad too heavy and sweet, and the corn on the cob I had strangely was not sweet at all.)
The kitchen's care and regard for its ingredients are probably a byproduct of the restaurant's philosophy. This is the second outpost of Goin' Coastal, the first being in Canton, and both locations claim a devotion to sustainability. On the wall, printed along the top of a large photo depicting a fishing boat, a set of ethics is spelled out in black and white: "We feature only the highest quality seafood from sources, either fished or farmed, that can exist over the long term without compromising species' survival or the health of the ecosystem."
It's hard to describe the food at Goin' Coastal with the requisite amount of enthusiasm, because all over America and the world, kitchens churn out plates of crab and shrimp. But not many do it well. Somehow, this place knows how to source and cook seafood in a way that succeeds where many others fail. It's an accomplishment, and one that Atlanta in particular sorely needed.