I'm sitting at a table on a patio surrounded by graffiti on one of the coldest nights of the year. It's a patio but not a patio in that it has walls, wooden walls, but they're not really walls, not in the traditional sense. They let in air at the corners, and to combat the icy drafts, electric fireplaces flicker their faux flames in the corners of the ... what? Room?
I am surrounded by chefs, and it's midnight.
To my right, the owner of one of the Westside's best restaurants is at a table in deep discussion with his chef. At a table in the middle of the room is a Fox Brother and a gaggle of cooks. Sitting at the bar is a bartender from a well-loved cocktail den two neighborhoods over. He stopped by my table on the way in and admitted that he's actually closing his bar tonight, but came here, to this drafty but comfy patio, for a drink and a dish that I don't see on the menu. Apparently word got out about it regardless. Word travels fast in this industry.
And industry is what Octopus is all about. It's hardly even a restaurant, more of a tacked-on concept: A place for chefs and waiters and late-night diners to go after all the other places have closed. Owner Nhan Le took a look at his current restaurant, the Vietnamese pho house So Ba, and wondered what he could do to leverage it. After a couple of exploratory supper club-type dinners with chef Angus Brown (formerly of Miller Union) they decided to open Octopus on So Ba's patio and serve a completely separate menu. Le invited local graffiti artists to come in and paint the walls, resulting in some fun but predictable pieces, and one brilliant corner behind the bar, a deep red dreamscape of a piece by local artist Brandon Sadler that resembles a bloody octo-tsunami. Octopus opens at 10 p.m. and closes at 3 a.m. six nights a week.
Le and Brown are serving food specifically geared toward the passions of chefs. The menu is a collection of international oddities and a few insane mishmashes, portioned for late-night snacking or sharing. Some work as full meals — a subtle, gingery broth swimming with needle-thin noodles and shrimp and rabbit dumplings, or the awesomely warming rabbit with ricotta cavatelli, cauliflower cream and curry oil. And some are undoubtedly sides, such as shredded, lemony Brussels sprouts made crunchy with walnuts that work as a slaw more than a stand-alone dish. There are a couple of large dishes to share every night, including whole fish showered with ginger and cilantro, and a Korean pork barbecue platter served with some of the most lovely, spicy, and delicate house-made kimchee around.
The only hint of So Ba's influence is with a plate of bo la lot, tight rolls of beef wrapped in grape leaves over rice noodles. But the flavors in this dish are more refined and precise than the crowd-pleasing Vietnamese served inside during regular business hours.
Salt and pepper shrimp beg to be eaten whole, the creamy interior of their heads exploding beneath a shattery fried exterior, the sweetness and burn of onion and jalapeño clinging to the fry. Uni (sea urchin) is a favorite ingredient, used to top oysters and also in one of the most outrageous dishes of the decade: a house-made ribbon-like pasta tossed with globs of the stuff, bringing out its pink oceanic funk. The combination makes about as much sense as throwing sashimi in your Bolognese, until you recognize the stinky cheese, über-umami qualities in the sea urchin. You have to have an advanced appreciation of uni to get this dish, but if you do you'll taste the brilliance in the bowl.
There are times the freewheeling nature of Brown's cooking misses the mark. A house-made sausage and pasta dish that's both too salty and gummy recently replaced the rabbit cavatelli. The "oysters our way" are fun briny mouthfuls, but toppings on the fresh oysters such as chicharrónes get lost — I'd prefer a simple raw bar. Which is fortuitous because Le has plans to add just that — a raw bar in the middle of the patio/dining room serving different varieties of oysters and some sashimi.
The drinks list is short — a handful of beers, two sakes, three red wines, and one white. The emphasis is on the five or so cocktails. I especially love the Villager, a take on the rye/maraschino craze sweeping the bars of Atlanta, and the Bluff, a lemony Averno concoction that has all the floral, herbal guile of that liqueur. I'd love to see a bottle of decent sparkling added to the offerings — Octopus is a place for ghetto decadence, and drinking Champagne at 2 a.m. on a slightly shabby East Atlanta patio would surely fit the bill.
To say Octopus is a casual affair would be a gross understatement. As is befitting of late-night dining, a kind of low-key revelry prevails. Service is friendly and can be a touch disorganized. If the patio is busy, as it gets on weekends especially, drinks can take a long time to materialize. Because the space is technically outdoors, smoking is allowed. All of this makes for a slightly rough around the edges and occasionally odd experience. I spent one evening here flanked by a large group celebrating a birthday, the guest of honor rising wobbly from her seat to declare, "Seriously you guys, thanks for being the best friends ever, I love each and every one of you, I love to party, thanks for making this the best night of my life, WOOOOOO!!!" The oysters, the uni, the delicate house-made pasta don't negate the fact that this is late night in East Atlanta, and it feels like it.
But Octopus is also the next step in our city's evolution, an evolution that broadens the definition of dining — how it works, when it happens, and who it serves. Octopus isn't as comfortable or swank or boring as most of the good restaurants in town. And as such, it is far more exciting.