There is hardly anything more satisfying than a well-made Manhattan. At its ice-cold, crisp best, the Manhattan is brown liquor's perfect expression — a hint of sweetness, brooding depth, tempered by the slightest kiss of bitterness on the finish. But the drink's simplicity can also be its downfall. Too much vermouth, the wrong whiskey, or too much cheap cherry commonly appear, making the Manhattan one of the world's most mismade drinks. But when it's done right, there's nothing better.
Well, maybe one thing's better than a well-made Manhattan: a well-made Manhattan close to home. For folks in the Grant Park/Reynoldstown/East Atlanta/Cabbagetown 'hoods, drink has always been readily available. It's a bar-centric part of town, to say the least. But not until very recently were quality cocktails a major feature of that drinking scene. With the opening of the Sound Table in the Old Fourth Ward, and now H. Harper Station, all that's changed. The eastern neighborhoods are all of a sudden ground zero for cocktail innovation.
At H. Harper Station, you can get one hell of a Manhattan, thanks to barkeep and owner Jerry Slater. His more than 40 mixed, stirred and shaken creations include all manner of flavor profiles, some more successful than others. But the Manhattan is pitch perfect — High West Rendezvous rye, Carpano Antica vermouth, Angostura bitters, ice cold, infallible.
H. Harper Station is a collaboration between Slater and chef Duane Nutter. Slater is responsible for the drinks and the front of house management, Nutter wrote the menu, and chef de cuisine Ethan Ray executes the menu (Nutter spends his time cooking at One Flew South in the airport). Housed in the old Atlanta and West Point rail station on Memorial Drive, the historic building sits at the crux of four neighborhoods along the tracks that will one day be the Beltline.
As much as the high ceilings and brick walls of the old railroad building serve as an aesthetic asset, the space's long, rectangular shape can also be detrimental. H. Harper Station's predecessor, the Depot, never managed to feel warm or convivial, in part because of its dimensions. It's almost as if the high ceilings call for an exaggerated bustle beneath to fill in all that space. But if there's an aspect of starkness to this incarnation, it's made up for by a bar and bar staff that give off warmth. Tiffany in particular, a bartender I first encountered at One Flew South, radiates knowledge and affability.
And really, H. Harper Station is all about that affability, along with cocktails. The cocktail menu is divided by liquor choice, and can be a tad overwhelming. The Hotel Arizona gives tequila a totally new, refreshing personality mixed with sweet vermouth and bitters, and the Bufala Negra is classic refreshment with basil, balsamic and ginger beer. Portrait of a Bartender mixes Irish whiskey with St. Germain and orange syrup for a golden, smooth, surprisingly light drink.
But sweetness creates some trouble behind the bar. The Jets to Brazil cocktail was extremely reminiscent of Flintstones vitamins to me. The Wooden Teeth and the Fox Confessor were both overwhelmingly sugary. When I asked a waitress for something "strange and bitter" she brought me a Key Party, which has a dash of bitters but is basically gin and honey syrup.
The cocktail list could be the basis for an entire review. But the restaurant also serves food, some of it destination-worthy.
A marked Creole influence is welcome, and works especially well on a plate of pork belly over local grits topped with a crawfish sauce. The whole thing sounds too rich — sweet, funky crawfish paired with crispy, fatty pig? Actually, that sounds awesome, doesn't it? It is.
Another standout is the gumbo, which arrives as an entrée deconstructed, a pile of savory, seasoned rice topped with mussels, shrimp, crawfish and andouille. In the fish and grits, seared trout sits atop a pile of grits flavored with crab meant for a plate of warm, gooey comfort.
For heftier appetites, the burger may seem like overkill, topped as it is with barbecued pork, but the pork just lends some smoke and interest to what is a classic, fat, meaty burger. The kitchen does well with meat; a bison short rib leaned a little to the sweet side but was otherwise satisfying, and the steak and eggs presents a hunk of rib-eye full of buttery flavor topped with a fried egg.
Much like the cocktails, dishes that don't fare as well often fail because of an over-reliance on sweetness. Jerk meatballs suffer from a cloying pairing of rum-stewed plantains. In fact, the rum was barely cooked out of the plantain mush one evening, lending the dish a hot, boozy flavor that made it inedible. A grilled pork chop came with blue cheese bread pudding, all fluffy egg and funk, but the apple cider sauce covered everything with a saccharine glaze that distracted from the dish's savory wiles. Even a bacon and egg fettuccini, which presents as a kind of un-creamy Alfredo, ends up wet with a disconcerting sugary residue, presumably because of the sorghum cure on the bacon.
It's an odd kind of place, H. Harper Station. Part neighborhood bar, part upscale restaurant, part old train station along a still-sketchy stretch of Memorial Drive. But what they do well they do very, very well: Creole flavors, neighborly congeniality and one damn good Manhattan.