On Sunday evening at JCT Kitchen, you don’t have a lot of options. From a short list of predictable Southern classics, say fried chicken or catfish or oxtails, you choose an entree and your table agrees on a few sides to be shared. I’d recommend getting a strong drink, too, maybe a rye Old-Fashioned that the bar will generously pour, because you won’t be going anywhere for a while.
From there begins a meal served at an unhurried Sunday pace. First a plate of leaning, many-layered biscuits, one for every head at the table, and another plate of mustard-spiked deviled eggs, again one for everyone. Later, a green salad tucked with a few touches of the season, maybe a few young spring beans or wedges of roast tender golden beets. Eventually, the mains will arrive. You’ll notice your plate of fried chicken, touched with a hint of spicy honey, has a conspicuous amount of empty white space on it. All the better for heaping on generous portions of the sides: silky, bacon-studded mac and cheese, porky collard greens brightened with vinegar, a bowl of hoppin’ john just begging for a big splash of the house-made hot sauce.
Don’t get too full, because a slice of custardy lemon ice box pie is still coming. Yes, again one for everyone.
I’d bet this all sounds pretty familiar to you. The family-style meat and three is about as old, maybe even cliché, as a meal can be in the South. You might know your family best from the long Sunday dinners you spent reaching across the table for another biscuit or spoonful of greens. I know I do. You can get some version of it from a buffet steam table or stuffed into a Styrofoam box at a downtown diner or at any number of classic joints. It is easy to take for granted, especially because even a bad meat and three, at least to my taste, is still pretty good. The genuine and pleasant surprise at JCT Kitchen is that the old and familiar is not taken for granted, even after 10 years.
While working on the AJC’s recent Spring Dining Guide, I happened to notice that JCT would be turning 10 years old this year and, for a minute, I didn’t quite believe it. That’s not because I didn’t know how long JCT has been around. I’ve been eating here occasionally, maybe a couple of times a year, for nearly as long as it has been open. What surprised me is that JCT doesn’t feel like a 10-year-old restaurant. In the best sort of way, JCT acts like a restaurant half its age.
Let me explain. Hit restaurants (as JCT certainly was) tend to have certain life cycles. They burn hot and bright with initial success until the next hot, young thing comes around. They reinvent themselves every few years with a new chef de cuisine and a light menu revision. But if they get to 10 years — not many do — they’re almost inevitably headed into a certain kind of comfortable decline. Sauces that were once vivid somehow become dulled. The cooking becomes less precise. Or, worse, the restaurant decides to radically reinvent itself to some ill-fitting trendy cuisine, like a middle-aged man trying to stuff his out-of-shape body into a two-door red convertible.
JCT rode in on the wave of new Southern farm-to-table style. Ten years ago, it was still somewhat novel for a sophisticated, talented kitchen to devote its skills and resources to dishes as old and clichéd as fried chicken and pork chops, to source local greens and make pickles for garnish.
Certainly other restaurants in Atlanta pushed the concept further, committed to more radically seasonal sourcing or foraged deeper into the creative possibilities of the cuisine, but JCT has never been a restaurant about the ego exercises of a chef. This is owner Ford Fry’s first restaurant, and it lays out the crowd-pleasing routine that he has used to dominate Atlanta’s restaurant scene in the decade since. The food doesn’t seem to tell me much about the executive chef, Brian Horn, aside from the fact that he runs a tight, technique-driven kitchen. There is no ego on the plates here. It is a place where, when one craves a pork chop as thick and satisfying as a steakhouse rib-eye, one can slip in quietly to a seat at the bar and have that wish fulfilled.
The other day, I dropped in for a late lunch and, thinking of my health, I ordered the vegetable plate. It was a good attempt, I guess, but the words “And a side of fried chicken skins” appeared in my mouth. Both plates arrived in heaping portions: one side a buttery, messy pile of spring bounty and a pile of deeply crunchy, addictive fried goodness on the other.
Sometimes I hear from armchair critics (and professional ones, too) that these dishes, the Fry method, are too familiar, too pandering, too obvious and eager to please. They’re neither deeply authentic nor wildly creative, the sort of poles that critics prefer to praise, but simply very well executed. I think that matters.
Maybe it wouldn’t impress me so much if I hadn’t sawed into so many bone-dry $30 “heritage” pork chops in this town. Or been served so many plates of fried chicken by cooks who apparently don’t know the proper temperature of their frying oil. It sometimes seems like all those lessons of new Southern style — that the old dishes shouldn’t be taken for granted, that they deserve to be lavished with our utmost attention in the kitchen — need to be relearned.
Not at JCT. This is a restaurant that still respects its founding principle: Make the classics and make them well. Invite the family over for dinner on Sunday. Pass the biscuits.
1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4:30-9 p.m. Sundays. 404-355-2252, jctkitchen.com.