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Five years later: Letter to Atlanta chefs revisited

In late 2009 I began reviewing restaurants in this newspaper after taking a five-year hiatus. About four months into the new tour, I came to the somewhat depressing realization that the level of cooking had really slipped in the city. So I wrote an open letter, a cri de coeur, to Atlanta chefs and implored them to improve.

The letter got a lot of attention, not least of which was a smart, respectful rejoinder from chef Ron Eyester that he published in Creative Loafing.

This letter was referenced recently in a Q&A I did with Evan Mah at Atlanta Magazine, and since then some readers have asked me to resurface it and comment on how the city has changed in the interim. That seemed a dandy idea, so here it is, edited for length, with notations.

Dear Atlanta chefs,

I write this letter with respect and admiration and, in some instances, love for all the hard work you do. But I have to deliver a tough message, and it is this: You need to up your game.

Four months ago I started dining out again as a restaurant critic for this newspaper after a five-year hiatus. I haven’t hit every major restaurant yet but have been to enough to witness a real change from my last go-round at this job. The standards aren’t what they used to be.

1. Please work on your execution: Set high standards, train your cooks well, and if you don’t yet trust them to execute the food as well as you do, don’t leave the kitchen. I can’t tell you how many good restaurants have served me limp salad greens, pan-fried fish without crisp skin, steaks without sear and seasoning that is all over the place.

Completely changed. Even good watering holes, such the Wrecking Bar Brewpub, can surprise you with how much care they put into getting the dish right. The city is leagues away from where it was five years ago.

2. Dazzle us with your finesse: People go out to restaurants to eat the kinds of dishes they can’t make at home. We want to marvel at how you cut that amazingly tender braised short rib into such a perfect square or how you coaxed that infinitely velvety texture from a parsnip.

The many venues for gorgeous, striking, finessed cuisine range from Atlas to Better Half.

3. Think about our health: When I look to the stars, it appears the heavenly body that brought us this Age of Meat is in retrograde. People are starting — gingerly — to speak of vegetables and sensible eating again. But the “gluttony-is-good” ethos just won’t go away.

Bocado and Empire State South are two restaurants that give uncommon care to lighter fare. And count me a fan of the beautiful crudité bowl at True Food Kitchen, a chain restaurant in Lenox Square that provides a welcome alternative.

4. Show some wit: Each dish should be a story well told, even if it’s one that has been told many times before. Maybe you are making a beet and goat cheese salad, or macaroni and cheese. Instead of cutting the beets into wedges, you might sliver them into carpaccio rounds.

Eat Me, Speak Me — chef Jarrett Steiber’s rocking Candler Park pop up in Gato Bizco — has wit and smarts to spare.

5. Don’t be afraid of sauce: I don’t miss the days of sticky and overly salty reduction sauces with meat and wading pools of butter with fish. But I do long for dishes with a small pool of sauce bridging the flavors of protein and garnish — those bites of food that register on the palate as three-part harmony.

Nothing pops into mind, but I’d love to hear what restaurants you think uphold the lost art of the saucier.

6. Be casual in the right way: I’ve eaten a lot of simple down-home food from gorgeous plates in design meccas or urban rusticity in this city. Now I’d like to eat an amazing plate of thoughtful food in a crappy little room with mismatched chairs and plates. Don’t set the stage for casual; just be casual and cook like there’s no tomorrow.

Dish Dive and Gunshow have vastly different ambitions, yet both capture this spirit of casual dining that comes so naturally to New Yorkers.

7. Work toward the new fusion: Atlanta is one of the country’s best cities for new immigrant cooking. Our mainstream restaurants need to better reflect the reality of today’s multiethnic South. Have you heard of the Indian vegetable called drumstick? It can be as delicious as artichokes. If you like to go to Korean joints on Buford Highway, do you ever think about how to incorporate those flavors (chile, garlic, sugar, fermented vegetables) to a smart, wine-friendly dining sensibility?

We’re developing into a national leader in this regard, right? From Heirloom Market BBQ’s transformative pork sandwich to Boccalupo’s brilliant tagliatelle, this city is alive with kimchi whisperers.

8. Make one thing really well: This whole food truck mania is not about the pleasures of diesel fumes and plastic forks. It’s about young cooks who make brilliant pizza, or serious ice cream, or bizarrely original tacos. Every chef needs a signature dish that is all hers or his.

I think Antico Pizza Napoletana became a force soon after I wrote this. So, boom. The General Muir perfected its pastrami and managed to find a home for it in everything from poutine to hamburgers. From Pine Street Market bacon to Banner Butter, Atlanta has produced some national-class artisans.

9. Surprise us: I recently went to a restaurant I really like and have to say my heart sank a bit when the waitress said the soup special was butternut squash. What’s special about that? Everyone makes it. Is anyone trying a cream of turnip, or kohlrabi, or escarole, or carrot with cumin, or Sea Island red pea with country ham, or wild lamb’s quarters with black cardamom and ginger, or …

I’m sorry if I killed butternut squash soup. But I always love seeing what crazy newness is on the menu at One Eared Stag.

10. Finally, show us your unique POV: I know lot of your customers want a burger, or a steak, or the same sorry dish you’ve been making for 10 years and, well, sure: The customer’s always right. But you went into this line of work to show us who you are as a chef. Show me something that you want to eat. Try to advance the agenda. This city needs you more than ever.

So many unique culinary voices now ring out. We could use more, sure, but this city appreciates its chefs like never before.

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