Review: Todd English Tavern offers faux-Southern at SunTrust

The Atlanta Braves had a bad season this year. That’s not news to anyone. The Braves have limped along for the past couple of years, and this season wasn’t much different aside from the opening of SunTrust Park, their new home in Cobb County. On the other hand, I hadn’t realized the situation was so bad until I dropped in to Todd English Tavern, expecting to catch the last game of the regular season.

Todd English Tavern isn’t exactly a sports pub, but something intended to be vaguely nicer than that, a joint gussied up with “specialty cocktails” and the promise of ingredients such as “heritage pork” and a celebrity chef name. English has been a chef of renown for well over two decades, noted for his international flair and decorated with plenty of awards, TV appearances, cookbooks and a line of “cookware and lifestyle products” to his name. Should you expect him to be the guy cooking your chicken wings on a Friday night in Cobb County? Well, I counted 15 restaurants, not including this one, on his website, with locations everywhere from Orlando, Fla., to Abu Dhabi. A chef who moved from Orlando, Jimmy Reyes, has been tapped to run the kitchen here.

This location is at the heart of the restaurant and retail district built in tandem with the new ballpark. Naturally, there are plenty of screens for watching sports while taking in a meal. On the afternoon of this last away game, I’d casually mentioned to the hostess that we’d like to sit near a screen with a view of the game. Once we had sat for a minute, I realized that all the TVs in view were showing the Falcons. I thought it was a simple misunderstanding.

“Oh, sorry,” I said, “I meant the Braves game.”

The hostess looked at me with a blank face.

“Do you have any screens playing the Braves games?”

She blinked her eyelashes, smiled, and simply said, “No.”

I can’t say exactly what that means, but when the restaurant sitting at your home plate is not playing the last game of your season on one of its many televisions, it isn’t a good sign. In the hostess’ defense, nobody else in the room seemed to care about the Braves game, either. We sat outside on the patio, watching the game on a screen.

Of course, this isn’t just a joint for watching baseball or football. The restaurant’s closest neighbor, a massive Thunderdome-meets-Las Vegas-styled concept called Sports & Social, is the budget-nachos and giant-screen destination for just that. Todd English is ostensibly the place you should consider splurging for a finer meal. Should you? I’ve found that the answer is simple. No. No, you definitely should not.

I did not expect that to be the case. In fact, when our food arrived that afternoon, my eyes widened with expectation and excitement. I’d ordered a massive entree called the Pig Trio, which arrived on the polished, round cross section of a tree trunk. There were golden brown caramelized skewers of pork loin and apple, a bowl of smoked and pulled pork shoulder, and slices of fall-apart tender pork belly leaving a glaze of clear fat across my tree trunk plate. Then came the sides: bowls of dirty rice, apple butter and black-eyed peas. After that, three comically large portions of thick house-made barbecue sauces. A feast for the eyes!

It was only after I started eating that I realized the only pleasure in this dish was looking at it. Those skewers of pork loin looked perfectly golden brown, but they were also miserably tough. The “smoked and pulled” pork shoulder had no detectable hint of smoke flavor, though it was tender enough. The pork belly was fine enough, fatty and cooked to shreds, but in need of more aggressive seasoning.

The black-eyed peas were, at least, respectable. Certainly no better than the black-eyed peas you can get at dozens of steam-table soul food joints in this town, but at least they were black-eyed peas. The dirty rice, on the other hand, I’m not sure I could call dirty rice. The bowl contained a bland, soupy gruel with rice cooked beyond the point of oblivion and oddly of a purple hue.

I’d ordered a suitably Southern-sounding cocktail to go with the meal, a Kentucky mule made with a blend of Woodford Reserve bourbon, Bulleit Rye, pear liqueur, orgeat syrup, fresh lime juice and ginger beer. All together, it added up to something that tasted like vaguely gingery bourbon lemonade. It was fine.

My tablemates ordered somewhat more sensibly. One had the Southern Burger, which calls for bacon, an egg, wild berry jam, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions and spicy mayo to be assembled into a massive stack atop a thick, 8-ounce patty. The result is a tower too large to fit into any human mouth I’ve ever encountered, and thus it requires the labor of mashing and cutting the thing into an approachable bite. Once you get this gooey, dripping, overloaded thing into your mouth, you’ll be hit with a conundrum. The individual elements aren’t bad — the bacon is cut thick, the onions are charred and soft, the yolk is respectably runny, and so on — but the patty doesn’t seem to have been seasoned with a single grain of salt. Thus, the half-dozen flavors piled on top are dragged down by the massive hunk of bland beef.

Of course, I couldn’t finish the Pig Trio monstrosity, and our waitress, who deserves mention as being quite nice and helpful, brought me a box. As I dumped the remainder of the pork shoulder into the box, I was given the last treat from the kitchen for the day: a strand of brown hair that had been hiding under the meat I’d been eating this whole time. Lovely.

I have been back to Todd English Tavern, not that I would ever have gone back were it not for a strictly professional obligation, and tried to eat my way through other Southern-styled dishes on the menu. I have been served four Georgia shrimp tidily arranged on a bed of dry, bland mashed polenta. The bartender has served me a pretty good Old Fashioned and a pint of Terrapin Chopsecutioner, comically seasoned with baseball bat wood. I’ve chomped down a few chicken wings, too sticky-sweet for my taste but not bad, served with a thick “Georgia peanut” satay sauce.

None were quite as offensive as the maple-glazed spoonbread, which I hesitate to call spoonbread because what I was served was nothing spoon-tender or satisfying but a desiccated, dried-out disc of cornmeal half-stuck to the kitschy cast-iron pan in which it was served. Dishes like these are cynical faux-regionalism, regrettable imitations of food the kitchen clearly doesn’t understand. You might as well just get a beer and some wings.

As they say in baseball, a swing and a miss.

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