- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
Growing up in Louisiana, we ate our po’boys on “French bread” that wasn’t like any bread in France. At the football games, we cheered “Geaux Tigers!” though “geaux” was definitely not the French word for “go.” Sure, any and all of us knew a little French — certainly enough to let “Laissez les bons temps rouler” roll off our tongues — but we didn’t care that no actual French person in France would ever utter such a thing. We weren’t trying to be French, or from France for that matter. The complicated knit of cultures in Louisiana — Acadian, Cajun, Creole — all borrowed from the French without caring much about how things are done in France. That’s one of the reasons Louisiana has a spirit of place all to itself.
Bon Ton, a neon-lit, open-late seafood joint in Midtown Atlanta,is a great restaurant in the New Orleans style precisely because it isn’t trying to be from Louisiana or to do things exactly how they would be done there. Instead, it is a restaurant that cares about the spirit of the place.
You wouldn’t be half wrong to think by “spirit” I mean booze. Like New Orleans, Bon Ton is a fun place to drink. There are frozen drinks on tap, including a bright, slushie Pimm’s Cup variation they’re calling a “Ward Six Cup.” The house cocktail list leans toward Tiki influences, including the rum-based Painted Snipe, crowned with a chewy ring of dehydrated pineapple, and a mai tai variation with smoked bourbon.
The bar staff is knowledgeable and precise, the kind of crew who will happily stir up New Orleans classics whether or not they’re on the menu, including a flawless Vieux Carré. And unlike the one served at Pat O’Brien’s on Bourbon Street today, I actually enjoy the bright-red, towering Hurricane served here. No doubt that’s because of the fruity Hurricane syrup made in house, though good luck getting the recipe. Bar manager Tyler Blackbrave is keeping that his well-guarded secret.
Clearly, the Bon Ton team knows, too, that a cocktail can only be as great as the room it is served in. This is a very good and fun one, full of loud music and colorful patterns and an absurd neon sign spelling out “Fancy Service,” that speaks well to the trio of owners behind it. They are Darren Carr, whose hip nightlife resume includes the restaurant that previously occupied this space (Top Flr), Eric Simpkins, a veteran bartender who actually deserves the often misused title of mixologist, and Hieu Pham, the owner of Crawfish Shack Seafood on Buford Highway.
To my mind, Crawfish Shack has long been Atlanta’s best spot for those looking for a po’boy or some boiled seafood to remind them of home, though I don’t mean just Louisiana. Of the many times I’ve sat down at those shared picnic tables, I’ve been just as likely to sit shoulder to shoulder with a refugee of post-Katrina New Orleans as someone whose family, like Pham’s parents, came to this country as refugees of the Vietnam War.
Louisiana and Vietnam, both former French colonies with plenty of coastlines, rice and seafood, have more than a little in common, including a very un-French enthusiasm for eating with the hands. Pham was born here in Atlanta, but, as he told a Southern Foodways Alliance interviewer in 2010, he fell in love with the people and food of Louisiana during summer camps as a kid. Pham’s influence on the menu is more than obvious, though he has tapped Matt Floyd to run the kitchen.
While Crawfish Shack’s menu aspired exactly to that name, Bon Ton aspires to a more cosmopolitan pedigree. The heart of the menu is still boiled and fried seafood, but it is dressed up with dozens of options that borrow freely from culinary traditions across Louisiana, Tennessee, Southeast Asia and Canada, to name a few.
There is a bowl of crunchy papaya and jicama salad lined with bibb lettuce leaves and piled high with sweet-spicy flavor. It is a fine, bright pair to the dark, deliriously rich bowl of sausage and seafood gumbo. This is a thick concoction, thicker, I’d say, than would be served in Louisiana, but that thickness packs an excellent, complex layering of slow-burn heat, salty seafood flavor and pork funk. You could make a fine meal out of just the papaya salad and gumbo, a thought that strains my brain to imagine where else such a combination would even be possible.
As is true in Louisiana, though, your safest bet is the fried seafood. There are oysters, crawfish, catfish and shrimp among your options, or you can combine all of the above for a giant platter with hush puppies and Cajun fries called “The Heartstopper.” When it arrived, I felt like a kid again, specifically an overweight 12-year-old in Baton Rouge who never saw a fried seafood platter he didn’t love. I didn’t even mind that the fries were soggy. They load Crystal hot sauce into squeeze bottles here, just so you can get that much more all over your food.
More restrained appetites will do well to pair a single fried basket, say the cornmeal battered oysters, with a bowl of something boiled, say the decent-sized shrimp. The haphazard-butterflying makes them easier to peel, though slightly less juicy, but the real reason to order the boiled seafood is the spicy, aromatic broth they’ve been boiled in. It is a complicated, lovely flavor that I don’t dare attempt to unravel. Pham guards the recipe for that like a family heirloom for good reason.
At some meals, I’ve enjoyed Bon Ton more in theory than in practice. A bowl of broiled blue crab claws were so tough they were nearly inedible. A side of oyster and cilantro fried dirty rice sounded great until the head-scratchingly bland bowl of it arrived. To the staff’s credit, they seem to be aware of and working on the kitchen’s occasional shortcomings. When our server saw that we’d barely touched the crab claws after an hour, he took it off the bill, mentioning that he agreed with our unspoken assessment.
During my visits, the recipe for the XO rice, a funky, blackened sauce of dried seafood and pork dumped over a bowl of white rice, seemed to be a moving target. One night I fell in love with the sauce, which tasted so funky and powerful I had to measure my bites in tiny spoonfuls. Another night, it had become spicier, saltier and less funky. Still pretty good, though. XO sauce is a relatively new invention, supposedly originating in a Hong Kong hotel in the ’80s, but here it had me thinking — why doesn’t dirty rice taste like this? Why not call this dirty rice? It has almost nothing to do with what’s served in Louisiana under that name, and yet that’s what seems perfect about it.
So head over to Myrtle Street and order up the Heartstopper and a couple of drinks and laissez les bons temps rouler. But don’t think the Hurricanes they serve at Bon Ton are just like the ones in New Orleans. No, no, no. They’re much better than that.