Long after the cocktails came and went and the small plates were shared and the last of the pork chop boxed up, after the spring sun had set and the streetlights around Harmony Park came on, my friends and I asked for the check on the patio of Scout and I put down my card. After such a long evening, I would have preferred to have just charged it to my room and taken the elevator up to bed. Unfortunately, Scout is not in a hotel, though it is a hotel restaurant.
What is a hotel restaurant without a hotel? Maybe you’re thinking what crossed my mind a few times: If you take the hotel away, isn’t it just a restaurant? I might have been inclined to agree with you were it not for my meals at Scout, which demonstrates the peculiar trick of taking restaurateurs out of the hotel without taking the hotel out of the restaurateurs.
This is a spacious, well-designed restaurant set in a charming complex of terra cotta roofed, window-lined buildings, once home to the Historic Scottish Rite Hospital. The branding is crisp and the multipage menu is as expansive as the seating arrangements, a kind of something-for-everyone crowd-pleasing approach that crosses from french fries and chicken wings to plates of heritage breed pork and seasonal vegetables to a fair selection of wines, rather complex cocktails and plenty of local beers. It is the sort of restaurant that would not raise an eyebrow in the ground floor of a glossy Midtown hotel, but is clearly the most upscale of the casual neighborhood restaurants that cluster in the center of Oakhurst Village.
The three principal personalities at Scout have hotel experience deep in their blood. Chef Michael Semancik previously led the kitchen at the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, easily one of Georgia’s finest hotels. Manager Chris Martha studied hotel restaurant management at Penn State, not to mention his years of experience with Hyatt and others since. Nate Shuman, a bartender who previously mixed drinks in the stylish basement of the Georgian Terrace hotel, has lent his considerable talents to the beverage program here.
The result is a place that does what hotels do best: welcome you in, give you plenty of comfortable room and decent service at a price. The lengthy menu all but guarantees that every patron will find something to like. Like a hotel, though, it can feel a little impersonal, less someone’s home and more anyone’s home, less Oakhurst Village and more Anytown, USA. The menu is vaguely Southern, but only in the most general of ways. It’s hard to know what the kitchen is proud of. One of the dangers of pleasing everyone is that it leaves precious little time for personality.
In general, the kitchen is more than competent. The french fries, short, nearly matchstick size made from the celebrated Kennebec variety, are pleasantly crisp and salty. The cauliflower florets, fried in a Pabst Blue Ribbon batter and served with horseradish-spiked sour cream, are fun to dip and munch on between sips of a cold drink. A salad of local, light green lettuces and lemon vinaigrette is topped with a pleasantly sweet crumble of pecan brittle.
But these rather average small plates also obscure much more interesting food, like the Angels on Horseback, a dish of warm, buttery oysters and bacon lardons served over a long slab of toasted brioche. It is a comfort dish of notable vintage, the kind of thing that a student of classic menus might know, and the rendition that Semancik is putting out of his kitchen is top-notch. I’d gladly eat two plates’ worth, so long as they both came with one of Shuman’s cocktails.
The first time I looked at the cocktail menu here, I was a bit skeptical. Shuman has no qualms about working more than a half-dozen ingredients into a drink. One of the long descriptions on the menu stretches into three lines of fine print. Yet, every cocktail I’ve had at Scout has been precisely focused and balanced in flavor.
I’m particularly taken with his habit of using local beers for mixers to change the length and mouthfeel of a drink. The bourbon-based Street Sense adds Night in Brussels IPA and a banana shrub to make a complex balance of fruity and savory notes. The Nitro Toronto has all the creamy, smooth qualities of nitrogenized beer (Think: Guinness) but the punch of boozy rye and Fernet Branca Menta. It is delicious, but dangerous. Have a few and you’ll need to hail an Uber home.
The entrees are more than accommodating in portion. An ample duck breast comes piled atop a thick hunk of cauliflower and colorful slaw. The pork chop comes seared to a golden brown with a mess of collards, a bowl of mashed sweet potatoes and some local apples cooked down with mustard. It might have earned the $28 price tag if the golden brown exterior didn’t hide a dry, stringy beyond-well-done interior. The duck breast suffered a similar fate, the rosy interior cooked a solid gray. In general, I enjoyed the small plates and cocktails at Scout much more than these pricier entrees.
The kitchen did much better with a bowl of Georgia Red Shrimp Creole over a bed of creamy, pearl couscous instead of white rice. It is a nice spin, the best qualities of the rich, tomato-packed punch of shrimp Creole and the buttery decadence of shrimp and grits. The shrimp were spot-on, still juicy, and the enormous portion more than satisfied.
Paired with the Angels on Horseback one night, these rich dishes reminded me of New Orleans, a town where the hotel bars and restaurants are full of personality and, as it happens, chef Semancik spent some years studying and working. I wish there were more plates on this menu where I could taste that sense of style and place. Scout is more than fine for a short stay, but it feels too much like a hotel in Anytown, USA.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: New American
Service: casual but accommodating
Best dishes: Angels on Horseback, Georgia Red Shrimp Creole, fried cauliflower
Vegetarian selections: salads and sides
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 4 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Sundays
Parking: lot and street parking
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Address, phone: 321 W. Hill St., Decatur. 404-496-6863