Review: Greens & Gravy excels at fried chicken and simple comforts

After making a splash on social media, chef Darius Williams opens his first restaurant in re-emerging Westview

At Greens & Gravy, chef Darius Williams’ souped-up soul food joint in Westview, you can get fried catfish on a puddle of roasted sweet-potato grits, Garlicky Turnip Green Alfredo, and short ribs braised for six hours in a hearty pour of Malbec. Williams even riffs on the food-on-a-stick trend, skewering fried chicken and biscuits and sending them out with country gravy for dunkin’.

How you respond to his outrageously rich comfort food will depend on your capacity to tolerate fat, heavy seasoning and a gussied-up style of cooking that often veers far from the traditional. If you want a fresh salad, if your diet is gluten- or animal-free, or if you crave fruits and veggies that taste like nature intended them, you’ll be out of luck here.

Yet the Chicago-born Williams, a self-described “celebrity chef,” cookbook author and indefatigable social-media personality who learned to cook at his Kentucky grandmother’s side, has found a devoted following at his first restaurant, a narrow shoebox on Ralph D. Abernathy Boulevard. Thanks in large measure to the Atlanta Beltline’s newly opened Westside Trail, the neighborhood is poised for change and gentrification. People are hungry, and Williams provides, with mixed results.

Overall, the experience is uneven, but the fried chicken is worth a trip.

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Whether you plan to stop by for weeknight supper or weekend brunch, a reservation is essential. Greens & Gravy seats 33, with a few more tables outside. When it’s full, there’s no place for overflow diners to mosey, no bar or adult beverages. One night, I was amused to hear a patron request a wine list, only to learn that drinks are limited to Kool-Aid, lemonade and sweet tea. (I can’t speak to the red and grape Kool-Aid, but the tea, lemonade and Arnold Palmers are wonderful.)

Skip the $10 starter of fried pickles, insipid bread-and-butter spears with a semolina crust and chive-ranch dipping sauce. Batons of crispy fried okra are a better choice; the veggie is sliced lengthwise, cooked almost to a char and served with a smoky bacon dressing. Deviled eggs are stuffed with a mash of lemon aioli and flaky crab, each of the six halves dramatically topped with a shrimp rubbed red with Cajun spice. Because the crustaceans have been peeled only down to the tail, the eggs are awkward to handle but tasty nonetheless.

Moving on to the mains, I’m a catfish fan, so the “whole baby fried catfish” with grits piqued my interest. Though hardly fingerlings, the two medium-size fish were perfectly cooked, yet the dish was tarted up with smoked Meyer-lemon vinaigrette. This watered down the grits, a classic concoction to which mashed sweet potatoes are added sparingly. I had little use for the “Pinot Grigio cream with bacon and herbs” that came on the side. (Next time, I would do like the ladies I saw with a plate of plain fried fish.)

The red-wine-braised short rib, served on a mound of Parmesan-whipped mashed potatoes and some tiny roasted carrots, was delicious. But did it really need both pistachio gremolata and green-apple pico de gallo?

Macaroni and cheese topped with chunks of fried lobster and bacon crumbles sounded divine, but the lobster was a tad chewy and heavily seasoned with spices. Plain mac and cheese, which arrives hot and bubbly in a dainty iron skillet, is delicious, however.

After a couple of visits, I’ve decided the best move is to stick with the fried chicken, which comes with one magnificently fluffy biscuit and two sides. The four pieces of apple-cider-brined bird (wing, drumstick, thigh and a choice chunk of breast meat) are on the smaller side, and that’s a good thing. It likely means the poultry was raised naturally and not injected with hormones. The crackly-skinned bird, drizzled with lemon pepper honey, is some of the best in town.

For the “fixins,” you’ll want braised collards and either the mashed potatoes or mac and cheese. The skillet-fried “white corn” with bacon and sweet red pepper is good, but the corn is obviously prepackaged and not fresh off the cob. (And for the record, the kernels are yellow, not white.) Greens can be on the salty side, but the accompaniment of watermelon chowchow balances the sting.

At a delightful brunch back in July, I was awed by a dessert of toasted poundcake with fresh strawberries, peaches and whipped cream. On a more recent visit, I ended the feast with Peach Cobbler Butter Cake. Served in one of the restaurant’s signature cast-iron skillets, the sliced white peaches were overwhelmed by a sugar overload of spicy cake, hardening caramel and vanilla ice cream.

A better option would be to order the Skillet Butter Pecan Cornbread. Though it’s listed as a starter, the buttery, muffin-like, nut-sprinkled bread is as sweet and crumbly as cake. A few bites will satisfy a craving for a little something sweet.

Williams’ larded-up style is often too rich for my Southern blood. (And that’s really saying something!) But on the rare occasions he remembers to keep it simple, his cooking can be memorable.

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