- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
As far as collaborations go, the idea of one between local butcher and craft beer proprietors just goes together as well as sausage and ale, doesn’t it? The affair behind Barleygarden Kitchen and Craft Bar in Alpharetta’s Avalon development has just such a natural balance to it.
Kraig Torres, owner of Hop City Beer, has built a reputation for sourcing excellent and impressively large selections of craft brews at his package stores and beer bar in Krog Street Market. For his first restaurant, he’s tapped Kevin Ouzts, whose butcher shop the Spotted Trotter has earned a reputation as one of the most discerning in town, to sort out the kitchen.
In the cool long downstairs bar, you’ll find 60 taps packed with beer both local and regional: Scofflaw, Monday Night, Pontoon, Three Taverns, Cigar City, Burial and so on. The rooftop bar offers an unusual, beer geek-friendly selection of European taps. To go with the beer, you’ll find a menu of options sourced from the Spotted Trotter, including hot dogs crafted from Georgia hogs, and pastrami cured from excellent beef. Ouzts has written a simple menu of sandwiches and bar snacks, the best of which make use of his own wares. This is very much Ouzts-the-butcher, and not so much Ouzts-the-chef, the ambitious meat-centric mind who created outlandish dishes at the now-defunct Cockentrice in Krog Street Market.
When that restaurant opened a couple of years ago, John Kessler, writing in this paper, praised Cockentrice’s “carnivorous intensity,” and wrote of meats “maxed out with pungent flavors and presented in ways you’ve never seen” and ingredients that “bond with an electric charge.” It closed roughly 18 months later. As an outside observer, it wasn’t hard to guess why: Krog Street Market was full of customers buying pints from Hop City and burgers from Fred’s and dumplings from Gu’s. By and large, they weren’t headed to that development for a full-service culinary experience.
For a critic like myself, who longs to be served dishes from chefs cooking not just with their hands but also their head and their heart, it has been painful for me to watch over the years a fair number of chefs in Atlanta be served the same lesson that Ouzts apparently was. Simply put, there is a modest audience in this town for food that is individual, born of the mind of a distinct chef. Ouzts’ Cockentrice belongs to a group of Atlanta restaurants that never found the audience they deserved. The late Angus Brown and Nhan Le’s Lusca comes to mind, as does Asha Gomez’s Cardamom Hill. Fine company, if bittersweet.
When a chef emerges from the trauma that is losing that sort of defining statement-restaurant, he or she usually comes bearing another hard lesson: There is plenty of real estate and foot traffic available in this town for chefs willing to flip gussied-up cheeseburgers and spin rotisserie chickens. It’s a conclusion I’d be tempted to call cynical if it weren’t so obviously true.
The menu served at Barleygarden is, in that way, what people want. A plate of chicken wings comes in buffalo or lemon pepper seasoning. There are fries and aioli that might inspire you to say, “Not bad!” You can get a pretty good bowl of fried cauliflower seasoned addictively with paprika and Parmesan. If I was killing a long afternoon on the patio, I could easily imagine ordering two bowls worth.
Some of the menu (boring salads, forgettable sandwiches) seems to be written in a “no kitchen can screw this up” safety zone, which would be better if it were true. One night I was served a dry, grainy pork bratwurst burger cooked past well done into a zone I’d call oblivion. Not even a heap of caramelized onions, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing could save it.
By far, the best elements of the kitchen here come from the Spotted Trotter’s fine charcuterie. The most exciting option is a build-your-own grilled cheese sandwich that can be filled with a rotating selection of meats including pastrami or chorizo, cheeses, and house-made lingonberry jam or mustard. Order just pastrami and provolone with mustard, and you’ll have a thin but satisfying savory snack. Load it up with the works (three meats and three cheeses) and you’ll have a salty, melty indulgence on your plate.
You’ll notice the menu, not so modestly, also offers “The Best Hot Dog You’ll Ever Eat.” Will that be true for you? I think it depends on what hot dogs you’ve eaten, but it is quite good: juicy, snappy, salty, and meaty enough to balance an ample bun. Loaded up with a mustard seed-laced pickle relish, I’d happily put it in my top five. That “best ever” phrasing is maybe the most ambitious thing on the menu.
Barleygarden is a place that understands its customers. You can order a nice local beer in a to-go cup and wander around the shops of Avalon, ogle the Tesla cars and Apple phones, or linger on the rooftop, nibbling on fries. No need to bother sitting down for fancy food.