Review: Atlanta Breakfast Club brings taste of the South to downtown

So you’re cooking at a Southern breakfast joint in downtown Atlanta, and you want to create a signature dish that speaks to your town. What to do? It’s not like this urban sprawl is a bastion of bacon or an epicenter of eggs.

Take a spin around the ‘hood, and you may find some clues, even in the asphalt jungle.

At Atlanta Breakfast Club, executive chef Anthony Sanders clearly had Georgia on his mind when he created his peach cobbler French toast. To put a local twist on the classic, fried-bread confection, he dollops it with a brown-butter peach compote fortified with a kiss or two of John Pemberton’s secret recipe.

That way, when visitors emerge from the nearby World of Coca-Cola or any of the attractions that dot the museum corridor around Centennial Olympic Park, they can savor two of the region’s most hallowed ingredients, peaches and Coke.

Truth be told, the hefty slabs of deeply burnished Texas toast, cobbler-ized with Georgia’s most famous fruit and scattered with a buttery crumble, wasn’t the best of the many dishes I tried during my three visits to this 2-year-old breakfast-and-lunch diner directly across from the Georgia Aquarium.

For a couple of reasons, Atlanta Breakfast Club (ABC) isn’t likely to rise like cream to the top of the city’s abundant brunch destinations anytime soon. (There’s no booze, and parking can be a challenge.) But for breakfast-all-day lovers who live and work in the neighborhood, for tourists in want of a fortifying mug of coffee and a taste of Southern comfort, ABC will be a welcome filling station.

Since Grammy winner Gladys Knight put chicken and waffles on her hometown’s culinary map more than 20 years ago, the dish has transcended soul-food status to become a mainstream staple. ABC’s version isn’t just obligatory. It’s delicious! Two chicken breasts are impeccably seasoned, battered and fried to perfection; sandwiched between wedges of Belgian waffle; drizzled with syrup and placed teasingly to the side of the plate.

You can get that same crispy bird in a pair of biscuit sandwiches with a side of molten grape jelly. If you like a touch of sweet with your savory breakfast, try a little jelly. For my money, the tender chicken and crumbly biscuit was wonderful all by itself.

I also really dug the breakfast tacos, even if they aren’t really tacos at all. Sanders knows how to make sugar and salt dance together. In this instance, he prepares two flour tortillas French toast style, stacks them with scrambled eggs and smoky bacon, and dribbles them with cane syrup. I thought the dish sounded a little weird, but a few bites proved me wrong. My guest told me it reminded him of summer camp. I adored it.

One way to enjoy all of the essentials of a Southern breakfast in a singular spoonful is to order a breakfast bowl: A hearty mess of creamy grits, scrambled eggs, sharp cheddar and your choice of meat (in my case, crumbled pork sausage). No need for a knife and fork. Just give it a stir and dig in.

Just back from an indulgent Savannah weekend of grits and gravy with everything from fish to foie, I eyeballed one unusual side option: shrimp gravy. “Would that be good on a biscuit?” I wondered to my server. He advised against the $6.95 side — “not enough bang for your buck” — and suggested I go for the $13.95 plate of shrimp and grits.

Smart man. It was a solid take on the low country crowd-pleaser: tender, plump shrimp floating in black-pepper gravy pepped up with chicken sausage and (my only quibble) a tad too much thyme.

Sorry to report I was less enamored of the salmon croquettes. Two tightly molded patties of flaky fish are breaded, deep fried and plated beside grits, a ramekin of house-made remoulade and a few sprigs of green. Not an epic failure by any means, but I like looser salmon cakes and was a bit put off by the gritty bite of super-fine crumbs, the aftertaste of shortening. Even the pickle-y zip of remoulade failed to salvage the effort. (I should also mention that the spring-mix garnish was past its prime and ready for the compost pile.)

At ABC, it seems that making pretty food is not as easy as 1-2-3.

Sanders paints in a palette of dark brown — from the aggressively fried croquettes to the French toasted bread and tortillas to the Coca-Cola-dyed peaches (which could hardly be fresh at this time of the year). It all made me think of this notion floating around the cosmos that ugly food can be deeply flavorful food. For the most part, that’s the case here.

Still, should Sanders apply as much visual panache to his presentation as he does to his cooking, the payoff would be golden. Imagine plates of food to rival the aquarium, the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, and the World of Coca-Cola.

I’d happily play tourist for that.

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