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After a Year on the Road, Revisiting Hometown Favorites in Atlanta

Ethiopian braised lamb, a take on the traditional stew called doro wat, lands on our table at Kevin Gillespie's Atlanta restaurant Gunshow. It comes with dusky collards atop a plate-size disc of injera, the spongy bread made from the tiny grain teff and, in this case, some wheat to cut its sourness. The meat tingles with chile, ginger, cardamom, and fenugreek — elements in the berbere seasoning blend that point to the Horn of Africa's position along the ancient maritime spice routes.

Gunshow Joseph Howard

Gunshow chef de cuisine Joseph Ward

The next plate boomerangs the taste buds to midcentury Middle America: trusty Beef Wellington, the warhorse snatched from its Continental cuisine quagmire by a little modernist know-how. Chef de cuisine Joseph Ward takes a mushroom mixture that's part duxelles and part mousseline and adheres it to tenderloin using meat glue, and then cooks the whole thing sous-vide. For the final assembly, he wraps the tenderloin in industrial plastic wrap before encasing it in pastry. After baking, he carefully slides off the wrap and voila — a ring of crisp pastry without a trace of sogginess. A side of mushrooms and potatoes roasted in beef fat echo the Wellington's earthy-meaty umami, and a slick of béarnaise adds old-school richness.

Gillespie and his crew heed no national or stylistic borders in their cooking. They meet every week to discuss obsessions, curiosities, works in progress, and previous creations (like the Wellington) that proved popular with customers, and then they print a sheet with a dozen or so items. Each cook takes responsibility for a few dishes, which they prepare and then personally circulate through the dining room on trays and carts. Diners say yay or nay, and then the cooks hustle back to the stoves. Beyond Ethiopia and Americana, a recent dinner included the flavors of Thailand (duck leg in red curry), New England (a gorgeous lobster roll nestled in a brioche bun atop a pristine leaf of butter lettuce), Louisiana (crawfish beignets with remoulade), and an Italian-Southern amalgam (Georgia white shrimp with wilted greens in broth). The kitchen's collective skill was the meal's harmonic unifier.

gunshow wellington
gunshow fried chicken bun
Gunshow Lobster roll
gunshow shrimp

Above: Beef Wellington and fried chicken on a steamed bun with kimchi; Below: Lobster roll and duck leg in Thai red curry

State Bird Provisions in San Francisco pioneered the dim sum-like, see-and-decide style of service when it opened in 2011. I had an off-key dinner at State Bird back in May and much prefer Gillespie's riff on the model. Then again, I'm biased. Atlanta is my home; I worked here as a critic, with interludes in San Francisco and Dallas, for more than a decade. When locals or visitors ask me where to eat, Gunshow is the first place I recommend. It is not for everyone: It's cacophonous when it fills nightly, the lights are as bright as a Target Greatland, and with temptations constantly whizzing by the tab can add up quickly. But Gunshow is also the city's most exciting, surprising, and fearless culinary conversation starter. If the "West Coast burger" — a reworking of In-N-Out Burger's "Double-Double, Animal Style" — is in rotation, relieve the cook of every one left on his tray.

When locals or visitors ask me where to eat, Gunshow is the first place I recommend.

Atlanta's most compelling restaurants, like Gunshow, tend to reflect cross-cultural percolations. Southern meat-and-three and soul food institutions have thinned to a thriving few, and the city's progressive chefs build their styles around syntheses of local and international cuisines. At Cakes & Ale in nearby Decatur, for example, chef-owner Billy Allin winningly explores the through line between Southern and Mediterranean flavors. At a meal in early October, pureed winter squash received a Middle Eastern makeover with coriander, za'atar, and pomegranate seeds. I ate it alongside fried okra with buttermilk dressing, and in Allin's hands they made pan-Southern sense on the palate. Ditto a duo of fish entrees: tautog (a firm, mild fish) served with butter bean pirlau in ham broth beside whole roasted trout served with dilled yogurt and a salad of purslane and radish.

cakeanddale Gnocchi
Millers Union Quail

Cakes and Ale gnocchi with lamb ragu and Miller Union's quail with braised greens.

Steven Satterfield, co-owner and executive chef of Miller Union on Atlanta's booming Westside, hews closer to the simple, agrarian pleasures of Southern cooking than most cooks in town. Satterfield grew up in South Georgia, and I always look for his hometown rice dishes (creamed rice, or sausage-studded Savannah red rice) that rotate through the lunch menu. But Satterfield also mines the ways American and Italian cooking can meld so seamlessly: rabbit roulade cooked to porchetta-style crispness complements rabbit leg braised in maple syrup. Desserts like sweet potato cake with pear chutney from pastry chef Pamela Moxley follow Satterfield's savory dishes with equal finesse.

I relish meals Cakes & Ale and Miller Union even more now that I travel much of the time; their food tunes me right back into the Southern growing seasons. They both lean upscale, with two of the most dynamic wine programs in the city. For more casual meals, I frequent The General Muir, a welcoming, all-day restaurant (near the campus of Emory University) that patterned itself after Jewish delis. Chef and co-owner Todd Ginsberg's pastrami passed muster with every dubious New Yorker I've brought here. At breakfast and the mobbed weekend brunch, look for platters of lox, nova, and smoked trout salad or the "fish and potatoes" — smoked salmon draped atop latkes accented with sour cream, apples, and arugula. Dinner highlights small plates like Swiss chard fritters in a blizzard of parmesan or (an enduring fixation of mine) poutine stippled with fried bits of pastrami among fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. An unusually crackly crust makes Ginsberg's fried chicken, served only on Friday nights, worth a detour.

general Muir Pastrami

Pastrami sandwich at the General Muir

Three miles away, an early crowd fills the long bar nightly at Kimball House, located in an old train depot near railroad tracks that run through Decatur. The reason for the throngs: oyster happy hour. Kimball House has seven owners, and it is the sole job of one of them, Bryan Rackley, to helm an exceptional oyster program, working with farmers from around the country and writing sly, precise tasting notes for the menu. The restaurant sells them for half-price between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., exactly around the time that an absinthe-laced cocktail from ace bartender Miles Macquarrie starts to appeal mightily. Stick around for smart small plates from chef Jeffrey Wall — perhaps a foie gras and chicken liver mousse terrine sidling up to a croissant, or an update on the Southern beans and rice staple hoppin' John, this one zigzagging with grilled broccoli, mushrooms, and yogurt lashings.

Mamak fishhead
Mamak noodles
Mamak Tilefish

Above: Fish collar in chile sauce and Chow kway teow; Below: Anchovies, onion, and pinenuts, in chile sauce

If asked about the single thing that makes the Atlanta dining scene stand out, I'd cite Buford Highway. The redneck chime to the name belies its reality — a corridor, running from the city center to the northern suburbs 30-plus miles north, lined with a literal wonderland of multiethnic restaurants. No one nationality dominates within its endless strip malls. In the highway's densest areas, where it flows through the satellite towns of Chamblee and Doraville, one can find Salvadoran papusas, Chinese soup dumplings, Korean soondubu, Indonesian fried soybean cake with sambal, bubble tea, pho, and several options for tacos all within a five-minute drive-if not right next door-from one another.

If asked about the single thing that makes the Atlanta dining scene stand out, I'd cite Buford Highway.

The restaurants along BuHi (as Atlantans call it) once opened and closed furiously; it was a game to see if, say, a tofu house would replace the Dominican cafeteria. Turnover slowed in recent years — there is more activity, particularly for Korean restaurants, in the town of Duluth north of Atlanta — but the advent of a promising newcomer along the highway still galvanizes food obsessives. The latest is Mamak, a Malaysian draw that opened this fall in a particularly cramped shopping center. Take cues from Asian families crowding tables and order fish head (actually pieces of fleshy fish collar) deep-fried and glazed in chile sauce or served in a soup with mustard greens, chewy but satisfying beef rendang, gentle Hainanese chicken with fragrant rice, pungent assam ikan billis (tiny, beady-eyed anchovies with onions and peanuts in tamarind sauce), and wide rice noodles smoky from the wok and tossed with shrimp and squid.

The city's finer dining chefs are known to hang out on Buford Highway. I expect a couple of Malaysian specialties to pop up on Gunshow's merry-go-round of a menu any day now.

Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back in January to find out which restaurants made the cut.

Photos: Bill Addison

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