- Wyatt Williams For the AJC
Among the fickle winds of fashion and trends, some things never go out of style. A little black dress or a well-tailored suit will always fit in at a cocktail party. A pair of aviator Ray Bans never looks bad in the sun. Even when trends change for a few years, timeless style always returns. Much is the same with food. Though the restaurant industry can obsess over fleeting curiosities (nitro beverages! sushi burritos!), the classics always come back around. Case in point: Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere are back in the kitchen again.
If you’ve been dining in Atlanta for a long time, you may recall when Doty was the up-and-coming protégé of the legendary, Michelin-starred chef Guenter Seeger at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead. If your memory doesn’t go back that far, you may recall the elegance of his eponymous Shaun’s in Inman Park. Or perhaps you recall the days when Gummere built a loyal neighborhood following at the Shed at Glenwood. Or else you might remember when they gave all of that fine dining business up.
Doty closed Shaun’s in 2010. Gummere left his post at the Shed shortly thereafter. I can distinctly recall the indignant frustration of a friend, a self-professed Doty fan and regular customer, yelling a question at me, “He’s giving it all up to make cheeseburgers?” Doty did exactly that, throwing his energy into the Yeah Burger chain before cashing out and partnering with Gummere on a rotisserie chicken chain called Bantam & Biddy.
There was no arguing with their decision, though. The reverberations of the financial crisis were crushing the economics of fine dining. The restaurant world was changing. Left and right, chefs were giving up their white jackets and fussy plates to make food that can scale up and be served from the counter at a modest price. Doty and Gummere caught this wave of democratized, fast-casual dining. Now, the decision hardly seems unusual. Their most successful fine dining peers — Linton Hopkins, Todd Ginsberg, Hugh Acheson — all have some sort of counter service chain in the works.
Though it is located inside a former Bantam & Biddy location, the Federal feels like it could belong to a different era of dining altogether. With the sharply dressed waiters and dim lighting, the crusty, crackling bread that comes out before your meal and the French onion soup, this place could have opened in almost any decade in the past 50 years. It is a fine place without being stuffy. I’m never surprised to see a table of men wearing suits or a casually dressed couple from the neighborhood sitting at the bar.
But, really, let’s talk about that oxtail French onion soup. It is rich and decadent, a deep brown, velvety liquid full of falling apart leaves of onion capped with a thick, broiled slab of Gruyere and crusty bread. It is beefy and cheesy and just on the edge of being absolutely too overindulgent without quite crossing over the line. It is, in other words, exactly how French onion soup should be. As with many of the dishes on the Federal’s menu, the kitchen has not fussed with it or made it new; they have made it well. It is simply the classic dish it should be.
Not everything on the menu is quite that rich. The Sardinian flatbread is a paper-thin, plate-sized crisp cracker topped with a salad of light green lettuces and a few ribbons of shaved English cheddar. It could be carried off by a small breeze. The crabcake is hardly any heavier, an airy, light golden brown orb paired with a pool of grainy mustard and a pile of lightly dressed napa cabbage.
But with a Euro-centric bistro menu like this, I’m more inclined to indulge. Why not order the beef tartare? It is served here on a wooden plate, a creamy ball of chopped beef paired with a pile of fries that would not disappoint a Belgian and chopped endive to lighten it up. Paired with a glass of Cotes du Rhone, this is exactly what bistro food should be about.
Of course, you could order a Bonanza, a bourbon cocktail spiked with fresh ginger juice, or a Southern 75, which is more or less just a good, classic French 75. The bartender will even make you a nice, stiff rye Old Fashioned, if you like. But the short list of wines by the glass makes for the best pairings.
I should note that I didn’t have much chance at dining in anonymity at the Federal. Years ago, I reported a couple of stories that concerned both Doty and Gummere, and they apparently haven’t yet forgotten my face. But, more to the point, it is their faces that I’ve spotted looking out at me from the line. Guys with their age and experience tend to exempt themselves from actually doing any cooking anymore. Yet, I haven’t had a meal at the Federal where the two were not shoulder to shoulder turning out plates together.
Their touch is notable. Order from the short list of steaks at the center of the menu, and you will not receive one of those flame-charred hunks of meat as is the fashion of American steakhouses, but a golden-brown, delicately crosshatched steak cooked with a precise eye to temperature.
Better, though, are the dishes that evoke more style. A plate of sauteed turbot, golden brown and buttery atop a bed of potatoes and caramelized spring onions, was sauced with a rich, caviar-studded cream. I was reminded of another temple to bistro decadence, Galatoire’s in New Orleans, while finishing the plate.
I know I’m not alone in loving the schnitzel, a massive, juicy pounded thin cut of pork battered and fried to a light golden brown. The plate is dressed with flat leaf parsley, translucent rings of onion, an ample side of lemon, and roasted peanuts. It’s a perfect dish, somehow both heavy and light on the plate, both rich and airy. It works, but, of course, this is no real news. Doty has been serving it at his best restaurants for who knows how long. He hasn’t fiddled with it. He just serves it well.
In fact, I’m impressed with how little any of these dishes have been fiddled with. Doty and Gummere know their dishes are just classic style, finally come back around again. I hope they stay for a while this time.