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Review: Neighborhood pleasures at Poor Hendrix in East Lake

It is a truth universally acknowledged, to paraphrase Jane Austen, that a community in possession of good fortune must be in want of a neighborhood bar and restaurant. Over the last number of years, the East Lake neighborhood has become exactly that.

New residents have flocked there for good reasons. It is a charming neighborhood full of trees and old homes and young families happy to be close to the celebrated Drew Charter School. Restaurants have been curiously slow to catch on, though. Until recently, if you were looking for a good evening meal in East Lake, you needed to go north to Decatur or west to East Atlanta Village or east to Avondale Estates.

At Hosea L. Williams Drive and Second Avenue, that is changing. A small group of restaurant owners and developers banded together under the name Hosea + 2nd has ambitious plans for all four corners of the intersection. On the southeast corner is an impressive glass and concrete development with room for three restaurants. Though two of those are apparently still being built out, Poor Hendrix has emerged as the first to court neighborhood diners.

This is a restaurant with two sides, both with a distinct menu and fairly different dining experience. On the right-hand side, there is a long, narrow bar with a couple of high-top tables and a patio lit by strings of bare bulbs. Though not particularly distinct in design, the bar more than makes up for that in conviviality. On my recent visits, the tall chairs have been filled with neighbors rubbing elbows while the bartenders happily stirred up classic cocktails, Negronis and French 75s, and poured pints brewed by locals Three Taverns and Wild Heaven. This is a crowd-pleaser’s bar, not aiming to reinvent the wheel, but simply serve what people like to drink.

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To accompany the drinks, there is a long menu of small but affordable bites. Chef Jamie Russell, who has made his name in Atlanta working mostly as a pastry chef for fine dining destinations, including Restaurant Eugene, is sneaking in some distinctly European touches. There are nods, like tomato garlic bread topped with anchovies, to the classics of Spanish tapas alongside ubiquitous bar staples like chicken wings and fries.

As for execution, these small plates would be more impressive with a touch more finesse. The plate of tomato garlic anchovy bread had much more blackened toast char than garlicky tomato flavor. The white anchovies were pleasantly tasty, at least. A bowl of smoked trout dip with pickled red onions obscured the trout’s smokiness in buttermilk. Between sips of beer, though, it hit the spot well enough.

Of all of these, I liked a dish of sweet potato biscuits the most. Topped with thick wedges of salty country ham and plated with a pool of sticky sorghum butter, it was the kind of addictive bar snack that dangerously inspires a second (or third) order.

On the left-hand side, though, Poor Hendrix is a more polished place. A wall-size rack of wine bottles faces a few window-facing round, dark wooden tables. A narrow row of tables runs into the back. On the walls, that night’s dinner menu is handwritten on boards, never more than a few appetizers and a handful of entrees. On this side, service is attentive and the kitchen’s ambitions are more apparent in execution.

A bowl of herb-marinated white beans and crispy sesame crackers was the kind of light but tasty, pre-dinner snack that goes just right with a glass of chardonnay. Nice, too, was a bowl of confit baby potatoes brightened by an acidic, chile oil-spiked aioli. Any meal, though, will begin with house yeast rolls. Their crisp, salt-topped crust and chewy interior are a real pleasure. There’s no surprise here that the chef cut his chops in the pastry department.

A plate of red wine-braised short ribs was as classic as could be. The beef was fork tender and deeply savory, and the pearl onions were just beginning to caramelize.

The farro risotto packed a double punch of umami from oyster mushrooms and Asiago cheese into a toothsome, hearty plate that never felt too rich. The roast trout with grits topped with bacon lardons and roast mushrooms was rich and decadent, though that could have used a little restraint on the butter. Russell may still have some fine-tuning work to be done in the kitchen, but the broad strokes of these meals have been a real pleasure.

Sitting with friends at one of those round wooden tables with an arrangement of flowers by the window, sipping from the short list of wines and passing these plates around to share — these are the pleasures that make a neighborhood long for a restaurant to call its own. In Poor Hendrix, I believe East Lake has found one.

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