Chef Tyler Williams could have been a painter. No matter what he’s cooking, his plates tend to get splashed with pools of color — brushstrokes and drips. When you talk about his food, you have to discuss the palette (the spectrum of colors) as much as the palate (the range of taste).
Just the other day, on the patio at Tap, I ordered a plate of corn fritters, one of the most common bar snacks, which arrived on an arrangement of herbed ricotta and chipotle jam that would’ve pleased an abstract expressionist. They were pretty good to eat, too.
Only a few years ago, Williams was one of Anne Quatrano’s prized proteges, promoted out of the kitchen at Bacchanalia and into the executive chef role at Abattoir. That gig launched him into the top role at Woodfire Grill, the fine-dining restaurant that had became a hot spot during Kevin Gillespie’s years as a “Top Chef” celebrity. Williams earned rave reviews there, including four stars from this newspaper, but the restaurant couldn’t survive the loss of Gillespie’s stardom. Williams left in 2014 and Woodfire closed in 2015.
Since then, Williams has been something of a nomadic chef, helming highly conceptual pop-up dinners (including a seven-course “Rainbow” meal soundtracked by the Radiohead album of that name), making Neapolitan pizza in the North Georgia mountains and, according to at least one interview, walking out on a television deal and hiding in Mexico for months.
It is a little surprising that he has returned to Atlanta as the executive chef of Tap, a long-running restaurant in the Concentrics group that largely has served as a burgers-and-beer joint for Midtown office workers in recent years. But Williams is clearly having fun with the challenge.
Why wouldn’t he? This is one of the most pleasant patios in Midtown.
The large, nearly map-sized menu is clearly designed to please more than one master. There are the recognizable bar snacks — corn fritters, chicken wings, a meat and cheese plate — for the happy hour drinkers. There are the relatively light salad entrees, necessary to please the office worker who doesn’t want to overindulge.
There is a burger, classic in every dimension — from the gooey American cheese to the crusty, charred patty to the house-made pickles. It is hard to imagine how anyone dropping in for a burger and a beer would be disappointed with such a thing.
Not to mention the beer list, whose fine print impressively stretches across the entire backside of that big menu.
But, in the middle of all of that rule-following, Williams is clearly trying to break out, color outside the lines, and travel all over the map.
His long-running taste for Indian flavors is all over the place here, most notably in the okra chaat, a bird’s nest of mandolin-sliced and crisply fried okra tied together by strands of tomato, onion and creamy yogurt.
There’s a brief visit to Japan in the pork belly steam buns and bowl of crispy calamari ramen. I see ramen too often on menus these days, as if it were a fashionable hat any restaurant could wear, but I was pleasantly surprised by this rendition. The broth was eloquent in its balance of salt and spice, the calamari flaky and crisp, the noodles satisfyingly filling. For the buns, the pork belly could’ve been a bit more tender, though the accompanying kimchi was nice.
Of the salads, a bowl of Israeli couscous is just the thing for a light entree. Those pearl-sized balls are tossed with parsley, chickpeas, arugula, cucumbers, feta and tomatoes, and topped with a precise soft-cooked egg.
During one of my meals, my anonymity was busted in rather spectacular fashion. As the hostess walked our party to our table, I tried to slip by a guest that, when I looked up, was not a guest at all but Williams himself. He looked at me, said, “Hi, Wyatt,” and walked off toward the kitchen. Over his shoulder, I heard him say, “You almost got away with it.” Needless to say, the dinner served that night was flawless, the service and pacing masterly, the suggestions from the beer and wine list excellent.
But another drop-in around happy hour proved different. We ordered about the same number of dishes, but instead of being coursed out and paced evenly, almost everything arrived at once. When I asked the server to hold off on the last of it, he said he wasn’t sure if that was possible.
That’s par for the course for a burger-and-beer joint, but Williams’ kitchen obviously aspires to more than that. It wasn’t possible to eat what we’d ordered without letting half of the dishes go cold. These are complex dishes that deserve to be eaten while still warm, even better if they have the chance to be coursed and paired with the right drink.
Growing pains like that are, perhaps, inevitable in pairing such an ambitious chef with this kind of format. It’ll be interesting to see how Williams continues to color outside the lines, especially in the evenings, when the rules of serving business lunches are little more relaxed.
I, for one, will be dropping back in to see what’s next.
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. 1180 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-347-2220, tapat1180.com.]]>