Last week, after a five-night getaway with dear friends in the North Georgia mountains, I had a night in Atlanta before heading back to New York. I’ve been an on-again, off-again resident of Atlanta since 1995; the city has been more of a home than anywhere else. I left officially in February; who knows when I might return.
But I’ve been thinking lately about Cakes & Ale, a decade-old restaurant in Decatur, Georgia, the town that is to Atlanta what Berkeley is to San Francisco. Billy Allin owns the restaurant with his wife, Kristin. Allin grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, trained at the California Culinary Academy, and cooked at Chez Panisse. Then he returned to the South, where he spent two years in the kitchen with chef Scott Peacock at Watershed, which, in its original Decatur incarnation, inarguably helped ignite the fervor for Southern food last decade. I still miss the country-style ham steak with red-eye gravy and grits for brunch, and the springtime rhubarb crisp with cornmeal topping that Peacock would douse with vanilla crème anglaise right before serving.
Allin’s cooking at Cakes & Ale tastes exactly of these influences. Few of his dishes these days pull directly from any fixed Southern lexicon. His menu roots itself in the local seasons and reads more Cal-Ital, in the best possible sense.
When I was a critic and editor at Atlanta magazine, Cakes & Ale perpetually topped our lists of best restaurants. Over four years now into my position at Eater, I’ve started wondering why I haven’t written more about Allin: His place, to me, is right on par with Atlanta’s Miller Union, a restaurant that I’ve twice named to Eater’s guide to America’s essential restaurants. (Miller Union’s chef and co-owner, Steven Satterfield, also worked with Peacock at Watershed).
So I made my way back to Cakes & Ale, where I had the edge-of-spring meal for which I’ve been almost physically aching. I ran my finger down the list of dishes and ordered anything with ingredients that said to me, “earth returning to life.”
Allin consistently scores with thimble-sized gnocchi; that night he paired them with asparagus and ham, all cloaked in cream steeped with green garlic. Fava beans and pea greens surrounded a black rice cake zinged with ramps. Strawberry-pine nut compote mingling with balsamic vinegar and mint brought the acid contrast for extra-oozy burrata. English peas rolled like pinballs around a veal roulade over potato puree. Fiddlehead ferns added satisfying snap to a plate of lamb chop, tongue and shoulder meat slicked with mint-cucumber yogurt.
A couple of wintry dishes reminded me how late the warmer weather is arriving this year all over the Eastern seaboard. I loved a salad of lentils, young kale, and rutabaga dressed with vinegary whole grain mustard aioli, and the scallop sausage paired with royal red shrimp over polenta in a tomato broth.
Beverage director Jordan Smelt is one of Atlanta’s ace sommeliers. His wine list is almost entirely French, heavy on grower Champagnes and Burgundies, though he also revels in obscurities: Treixadura from Galicia, Listan Blanco from the Canary Islands, Altesse from Savoie in France’s Alpine region. He’s one of the pros whom I just give a price range and a general range of interest and let him choose. This time around he poured a minerally biodynamic white, made from a grape called Maccabeu (there are several regional spellings) from Domaine Clos du Rouge Gorge in Roussillon (an area in southeastern France).
Desserts, honestly, have always been the weakest zone at Cakes & Ale. Spring to the rescue again on this visit: The restaurant has an all-day cafe next door, and Smelt (who was also our server that night) let me order a layer cake with fresh strawberry buttercream displayed on the cafe counter. I didn’t know how much I’d needed some Southern layer cake back in my life until that first bite.
The meal reminded me of the special place that Cakes & Ale occupies in the Atlanta-area restaurant ecology. Allin is a hands-on chef, always helming the stoves or quietly surveying his dining room. His food has imagination and pluck but never veers into weirdness. I’ve remembered as I type that this is, in fact, where I celebrated the day my job at Eater became official.
If you’re passing through Atlanta, please sidestep its soulless downtown and venture to Decatur to experience Allin’s eloquent sense of space. And if you live in Atlanta? Head back to Cakes if you haven’t been in awhile.
Also, my dear Atlantans: Next time I pass through town I’ll be thinking about places that might make it onto this year’s roundup of the country’s best new restaurants. Thoughts for worthy candidates? Email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your roving critic,