Pop-up at Gato offers stunning food, culinary wit


Eat Me Speak Me

1660 McLendon Ave., Atlanta.

I have a good friend who hates all things twee. She eschews Wes Anderson movies and will never call a sandwich — even the cutest, tiniest sandwich in the world — a “sammie.”

Me? I’m a champion of the adorable. I believe culture that’s kind of cute can also be meaningful, even deep. Eat Me Speak Me proves that theory handily.

There’s a whole lot of cuteness in this weekends-only, BYOB pop-up that fills the empty evening hours at Gato, the teensy Candler Park breakfast diner with exactly four booths and a collection of cat figurines behind the counter.

Chef Jarrett Stieber, meanwhile, is wiry, bearded and 26 years old. He’s featured in a Farmer Fund charity calendar wearing nothing but his apron and standing with a baby goat.

And then there’s the Eat Me Speak Me menu. Filled with funky fonts, puns and Guy Fieri jokes, it’s so cute, it can make even sammie-shunning adults coo. The cold Friday night I went, the menu promised “pretentious flowers” in a sunchoke dish and a shitake-laced salad dotted with “adorable croutons” tinier than Tic Tacs. Supple little veggies were dubbed “infant fennel” and “juvenile carrot.” The house-made cheese was served with a “frivolous garnish” and “not house made crackers.”

The cuteness de resistance — crushed “’nilla wafers” and pastel-colored sugar stars — came scattered on a lime custard dessert.

But is this twee? No, it’s self-deprecating. Stieber, who’s cooked at Abattoir, Pura Vida, Holeman & Finch and Empire State South, is poking fun at foodie gravitas even as he’s presenting food that’s seriously stunning and as witty on the plate as those descriptions on the menu.

Stieber’s dishes — all of them hitting the sweet spot between appetizer and entrée portion and most of them less than $10 — have a loose-limbed elegance. He splashes bright oils here, strews vivid veggies there. The final products are gorgeous and have almost too many elements to track.

But, that’s the point. When eating a sumptuous rutabaga soup, for instance, one could isolate the mild bite of the chile-dusted pecans from the fruitiness of the pink prickly pear oil. You also could contrast the velvety texture of the broth with the springy little cubes of rutabaga. But the better way to consume this bowl is without dissection, enjoying the beautiful melding of silkiness and bite; sweetness and heat.

My dining companions and I ordered the entire menu of 10 smallish dishes; fully eight of them were groaningly good. Only the super-mild house-made cheese and the moist blondie with a salty-boozy side of whiskey milk clocked in at “pretty nice” instead of “freaking delicious.”

But the dishes we ate — like the beautifully crisped chicken thigh tossed with beets, green onion ribbons and spicy peanuts, all of it nested in an earthy sunchoke broth — may never exactly repeat themselves. Stieber’s menu morphs each weekend, and sometimes each day, depending on local farmers’ bounty and his own culinary impulses.

The throughlines, though, are a reverence for vegetables and proteins from a lengthy list of local farms — a complicated layering of ingredients that results in flavors that are clean, simple and warm, rather than muddied or overwrought.

And, on every one of Stieber’s plates, there’s such exuberant color you’ll want to gaze at the prettiness for a moment before you dig in. You’ll want to, but you won’t, because someone else at your table will inevitably cave in to the aroma and take a stab at the still-life.

And, then, they’ll order seconds.

We went back for more fluffy fried tofu in coconut milk banked by bittersweet crunch (bok choi and radicchio) and chewy luxury (sweet potato wedges and flavorful pearls of Israeli couscous).

We couldn’t get enough of the salty-sweet salad of little gem lettuce, meaty shitakes and buttermilk poppy seed dressing.

And we seriously toyed with ordering a second lime custard, the one with the stars, because underneath that kitschy, crunchy garnish, the pudding was incredibly light and silky, with just the right amount of tartness.

An apple sunchoke dish, one of the few with a nicely burning jolt of heat thanks to a dash of Korean red chile pepper flakes known as gochugaru, was the only area where execution faltered. Just a bit. While some chokes were nicely caramelized, others were knobby and undercooked.

It’s a small quibble, and considering Stieber’s bare-bones operation and wild creativity, I’d expect — and forgive — much more.

Or maybe that’s the pre-nostalgia talking.

Because, the thing about being in pop-up mode, even though Stieber’s been a stalwart at Gato for almost two years, is it’s bound to end. Even Stieber agrees it seems inevitable that he’ll someday move on to his own investor-backed, permanent spot with a liquor license and a passel of business obligations.

That probably will mean saying goodbye to whimsical EMSM events like the sporadic Speakeasy Sundays, in which diners are given a slip of paper printed with a walkable address where cocktails and an impromptu party await.

I do hope Stieber can hold on to his culinary wit, his spectacular sources, his easy elegance and his ironic tweeness.

But, for now, I’ll go back to this iteration of Eat Me Speak Me as often as I can, knowing its particular magic is ephemeral.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food

6 easy side dishes anyone can make for Thanksgiving Day
6 easy side dishes anyone can make for Thanksgiving Day

Although the turkey will surely take center stage at your Thanksgiving table, a few unforgettable side dishes can't hurt. These simple Thanksgiving sides won't take very much time or effort to pull together, but look (and taste) like a million bucks. This Thanksgiving Day, give your family a feast they won't forget by including a few of these easy-to-make...
Atlanta brewery set to expand for the third time
Atlanta brewery set to expand for the third time

Scofflaw Brewing Company is set to expand. Photo courtesy of Scofflaw Brewing Co. Third time might just be the charm for a fast-growing Atlanta brewery. Plans are in place for a third expansion at Scofflaw Brewing Company , known for its IPAs and barrel-aged stouts. A 50-barrel, four-vessel brewhouse is scheduled...
We tried Thanksgiving-flavored sushi and potato chips — here’s what we thought
We tried Thanksgiving-flavored sushi and potato chips — here’s what we thought

Boulder Canyon ‘Thanksgiving flavored’ potato chips and the Gobble-Gobble-ooshi roll from Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar / Photo by Erica Hernandez   This Thanksgiving, we’re giving thanks — for the hilarious ways that food companies find to cram the taste of the holidays into unexpected food products...
Find gifts and stocking stuffers for food lovers at these metro Atlanta stores
Find gifts and stocking stuffers for food lovers at these metro Atlanta stores

Buy PROOF Old Fashioned Cocktail Syrup in metro Atlanta. At a loss for what to get the food lover in your life for the holidays? Metro Atlanta stores and producers have plenty of ways to put a smile on your loved ones’ faces with stocking stuffers and gifts, with everything from cocktail syrup and pie-making kits to beet...
3-ingredient cocktails just might be the best
3-ingredient cocktails just might be the best

There are tool sheds bigger than our kitchen. When the dishwasher door is pulled all the way down, I can barely inch past it to get to the stove. There is a doorway at each corner of the room, which means there’s no decent run of counter space. Moving around in there requires the precision of good knife skills. But the second and third shelves...
More Stories