Review: Grain bowls that break the rules at Recess


The Casablanca bowl at Recess is a perfect little name for a perfect little dish. Not that it has much to do with Moroccan food. Outside of a few spices that season a bright orange smear of pureed carrot, the contents of this bowl would likely be hard to find in the Old Medina in Casablanca. Instead, the name seems to simply conjure up a far-out place where rice crispies mingle with beluga lentils, where velvety blankets of Swiss chard are folded up with crunchy, seared okra spears, where a grain bowl can taste decadent and satisfying. Imagine that.

I’ve never been particularly appetized by the term “grain bowl.” Despite becoming one of the default dishes of American dining in recent years, the term still has the faintly agricultural sound of, say, a Midwestern farm tool. The phrase conjures up haphazard, unappealing jumbles of quinoa and radishes in my mind. This Casablanca bowl at Recess is the opposite of all that. It is a finely crafted creation that surprises as much as it satisfies.

Recess is the newest tenant in Krog Street Market, helmed by chef Victoria Shore and owner Federico Castellucci III, the scion of the Castellucci family that owns the Iberian Pig and Cooks & Soldiers, among other restaurants around Atlanta. The menu is unabashedly imitative of a certain hip, almost-vegetarian style popularized by restaurants like Sqirl in Los Angeles or Dimes in New York. Survey the open kitchen counter where this team dishes out avocado toast and turmeric spritzers, and you’ll probably feel a little cooler just for looking at it.

The contemporary food hall, from Chelsea Market in Manhattan to St. Roch Market in New Orleans, has been heralded for years now as an emblematic shift in American dining. Before Recess moved in, the space had been occupied by an outpost of the Spotted Trotter, an excellent butcher specializing in hand-cut local meats and charcuterie. It is tempting to see the shift from an artisanal butcher counter to a fast-casual, vegetable-focused vendor of grain bowls and salads as similarly emblematic. Is this not how we eat now? Perhaps.

Recess certainly does offer meat, though I wouldn’t recommend ordering it. The lamb sandwich served here on focaccia is stuffed with dry, thin, tough slices of leg of lamb. There is an option of adding shredded chicken to any of the bowls or salads on offer, but it is so oddly bland that it tends to obscure and dull the other flavors present. Though I doubt this is an intentional way of discouraging diners from ordering meat, it has been nevertheless effective on me. I stick to the vegetables here.

The one exception to that is the HB&J, a wild creation of a sandwich almost as far-out as the Casablanca bowl. Between slices of multigrain toast, a paper-thin layer of Benton’s country ham is gilded with thick hunks of Brie, a heavy slathering of fig jam, and a light touch of spinach. The musk of that salty aged ham melds with the funk of soft cheese and the sweet richness of figs to combine into something both brilliant and silly, like a college student run amok in an artisanal larder.

Shore seems to be at her best when she is making these inspired, fun oddities. The more typical fare, like a kale Caesar salad with croutons, cherry tomatoes, radishes and artichokes, feels obligatory and forgettable. You don’t get the feeling they spent much effort trying to improve it.

The open kitchen at Recess reminded me that such a design is both a pleasure and a liability. It is, of course, charming to watch talented cooks work their talents on an organized line. The charm wears a little thin, though, when the kitchen is visibly disorganized and the cooks seem to be haphazardly rummaging through it. I noticed a little of both over my several visits.

In any case, you’ll probably order your food at the counter and carry it away on a tray to eat at one of the communal tables, like most people do at Krog Street. Instead of adding meat to one of the bowls to round out your meal, I’ve found it more satisfying to just add a slice of toast or side of veggies.

I like the super bowl, an exceedingly healthy but nevertheless tasty combination of brown rice slathered in rich coconut milk, quinoa, bright pickled beets, dried mango, chickpeas, dates, and tahini dressing. The turmeric tonic, a bubbly concoction spiked with a bright shot of ginger, lemon, orange, and peppercorn infused turmeric tincture, is a fine pair for washing it down. A slice of avocado toast rounds out the meal.

I wanted to like a slice of toast topped with a pretty combination of spring peas, asparagus tips, silky ricotta, and preserved lemon strips more than I did. The arrangement was so pretty, but the toast that day was oddly tough. I can understand that the kitchen wants the bread here to be sturdy enough to carry the ingredients on it, but it shouldn’t be as sturdy as the plate it is sitting on.

In any case, I find it hard to imagine going back to Recess without ordering the Casablanca bowl. I could be tempted by the HB&J, but the flavors and textures in Casablanca, or wherever that bowl is from, is a place that I would like to visit often.

RECESS

11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 99 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-596-8396, recessatl.com.

Recommended dishes: Casablanca bowl, super bowl, HB&J, turmeric tonic, avocado toast.



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