On a recent evening at 8arm, the latest Beltline-adjacent destination to open along Ponce de Leon Avenue, I ordered the mussels.
I expected, perhaps reasonably, something along the lines of that classic combination of rich bivalves and crusty bread. In the candlelit dining room, the dish that arrived seemed to more or less confirm expectations: a long, thick slice of sourdough topped with a bevy of shelled mussels, shoots of ginger, leaves of parsley.
But, this arrangement was hiding the dish’s secret weapon: a thick smear of nori butter, a compounded spread that seemed to contain twice as much seaweed as cream. The tartine tasted as if it had washed up from the ocean and been plucked from a shoreside tangle of seaweed and seashells.
At that moment, there was no mistaking the man working in the kitchen. Most chefs tend to dial down the oceanic notes of their seafood dishes. Angus Brown turns the ocean to 11.
I find it hard to think of two restaurateurs who have broken more of Atlanta’s rules than Angus Brown and Nhan Le. When their hit restaurant Octopus Bar opened in 2012, it seemed less like a restaurant than an experiment in pushing the boundaries of Atlanta diners.
The hours of operation, between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., were unlike anything else in town. The menu, with pastas tossed with loads of uni and platters of pork bulgogi paired with West Coast oysters on the half-shell, looked unlike any in Atlanta or much of anywhere else at the time.
With a skeleton kitchen staff, sometimes only Brown himself, the wait for dishes could be unpredictable, a fact that the impossibly cool wait staff never seemed to notice. At least one local restaurant critic complained about having to stay up late to try the food.
But almost everyone who did loved it. (Those who didn’t just went back to bed.) East Atlanta Village, a neighborhood that has been historically unkind to fussy chefs, embraced the place. Octopus didn’t succeed in spite of breaking the rules; it succeeded because it broke the rules.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their follow-up venture, Lusca, an upscale, polished and expanded version of their East Atlanta swagger. During the time that it was open, I ate at Lusca more than any other restaurant in Atlanta. It was a brilliant restaurant, a marriage of Le’s skills with raw fish and Brown’s aptitude for Italian indulgence. Yet, the place never quite connected with the large audience needed to sustain it, and the restaurant closed after less than two years.
In many ways, 8arm is a return to form for the duo. The building is as unconventional and repurposed feeling as any they’ve occupied. The previous tenant was a scooter garage, though the building more resembles a vaguely Alpine mountain home. The floor plan is split-level, with a coffee bar on the east end and a spare, natural light-filled dining room to the west. The interiors have a flawless vintage touch. The service staff is as perilously cool as ever.
The surprise standout is a new character in the story, baker Sarah Dodge, whose pastries and breads give the place a lively reason to visit throughout the day. The glass case underneath the coffee bar is loaded with goods bearing her fine touch: cinnamon rolls, bagels, cookies and turnovers.
The best of these is a biscuit so full of butter and buttermilk that it rises to towering heights and crumbles to pieces like an imitation of a failing empire. Order a little muscadine jam on the side and you’ll be pleased.
Less impressive is her take on an English muffin, which can come out too sturdy and tough. However, served with soft scrambled eggs, avocado, bacon and cilantro-Tabasco mayo, you probably won’t mind.
All of these go quite well with a cup of coffee, the beans sourced from Coava in Portland, Ore., or the lightly sweet “coffee milk,” a house-bottled concoction with addictive properties.
In the evenings, the restaurant is still BYOB. This isn’t much trouble. With Green’s Beverages across the street, you’ve got as good a selection of alcoholic beverages as any in town, so long as you’re willing to schlep it yourself. This gives the restaurant a work-in-progress feel, which it very much is.
Just like the old days at Octopus Bar, many nights the kitchen is run by hardly anyone but Brown himself. His shifting menu can feel like recipe testing, a chef trying out new combinations around the available market ingredients. I’m not sure if he’s ever plated the excellent, creamy burrata the same way twice. His rock crab and avocado dish seems to be always getting a new window dressing.
Among these, unusual pleasures emerge, like a bowl of roasted squash, sage, hot peppers and tomme cheese that created a magical illusion of pizza.
A recent plate of shatter-crisp Darby Farms chicken accompanied the bittersweet wallop of radicchio and maple syrup. It required a few bites to process the flavors, to taste them in full bloom. It was as if the sweet-salty combo of chicken and waffles had been remade with late-fall garden forage. Where’s the rule book for a dish like that? I suspect Brown doesn’t care.
8 a.m.-3 p.m. and 6-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. 710 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta. 470-875-5856, 8armatl.com.