Restaurants, like professional sports teams, can tease loyal fans with eras of dynastic triumph only to lose their magic without notice. A resilient few find ways to climb back into the winner’s circle, more dominant than ever before. This appears to be the case at Atlanta’s Woodfire Grill as the 2013 spring season unveiled a new team inside the very familiar kitchen stadium on Cheshire Bridge Road. And this year’s Woodfire Grill franchise player, Executive Chef Tyler Williams, has been dominating Atlanta’s top-play restaurant highlight films ever since taking the field.
Woodfire Grill is now the best Atlanta restaurant
Founding chef/owner Michael Touhey had a great run after he opened in 2002 with full dedication to fresh, local, and organic fare. Touhey produced a fresh perspective that was never too lofty nor out of reach of the average diner yet impressive enough for Atlanta’s foodies. By 2008 the Touhey rendition had lost luster and was followed by Top Chef famed Kevin Gillespie who packed the house for years to come. Fame survived impressive dining during the Gillespie era, only to turn the franchise tired once more. In the autumn of 2012 Gillespie announced that he would leave to work on the opening of his new Atlanta Gunshow restaurant.
Finally, Portland-raised Tyler Williams moved from his Westside Atlanta executive chef post at Abbatoir to take the helm at Woodfire Grill. While he produced as inventive fare as the name (slaughterhouse in French) and chop house formula permitted, he humbly admitted to me that Woodfire Grill loosens his shackles and provides a comfortable creative space for his unique and expansive personal style. We all have to hope he never looks back, nor for that matter, anywhere else.
During a late evening three weeks ago I joined two musician colleagues after a rehearsal for a last cover at 10:45pm. It was a great chance to chat it up with Chef Williams as he produced plate after plate of head spinning inventive dishes that called on Thai, Italian, Indian, and Vietnamese influences to flavor imaginative dishes that are simply not produced anywhere else in Atlanta. Smoke, bacon, and herbs that have always found a welcome home in Woodfire Grill’s, well….open woodfire oven, are still in use to complement William’s nuanced multi-continental flavor profiles. Having grown up in Portland, Williams spent time working at Pok Pok in its earliest days, and he still feels so much of the street food glazes he learned there have dominant influence over his cooking today.
I wondered if the meal I was served that night could have been a one night wonder or midnight hallucination, so I hurried back with Atlanta tastemaker and Chief Editor of Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Clint Smith, last week to see if we could really validate the new Woodfire Grill as today’s Best Atlanta Restaurant. I was greeted at the door by Sommelier Patrick Guilfoil who walked me to my table while remembering what I drank a few weeks back. With unnecessary apologies, he informed me that the (retail price) **** $17 2011 Jean Paul Brun Vielles Vignes Beaujolais I swooned over last time was sold out but he had another Gamay he was even more excited about. I like it when sommeliers remember what I drink. Guilfoil has a commanding pairing sensibility, and has pieced together a smart and comprehensive wine list packed with interesting and tolerably priced wines from Europe and the US. The Brun Beaujolais from the region’s spectacular 2011 vintage is just one of those examples marked under $50, offering a world class food friendly accompaniment to the thrilling ride of big flavors Williams produces across an entire meal.
Just to assure ourselves, we selected the seven course tasting menu to allow Chef Williams, along with pastry chef Karie Brown, the chance to flex their strongest creative muscles. With fresh buns that relied on seasonally fresh ramps as accents, an amuse of scallop chicharron, uni emulsion, and bronze fennel, and a bottle of aromatic, citric, and clean tasting (retail price) *** $14 Tenuta Marchesa Gavi, we began a meal that had us looking at each other in disbelief and discovery with each course’s first forkful. Neither of us have ever known Atlanta dining to be nearly as inventive, creative, multi-textural, and playful as this meal. Here is a peek (excuse some of the photography as the lighting grew dimmer and dimmer as the bottles of wine and the courses played out) at the best eating in Atlanta today:
tomato water, dashi, seeds and grains, cucumber, bamboo shoots, botarga, basil
fried soft shell crab, coconut, sweet potato, collard greens, lime
crispy okra salad, chunky raita, woodland garden tomatoes, cilantro
bacon broth oyster shooter
Time for Red Wine!
***1/2 (retail price) $25 2011 Jean Foillard “Cote du Py” Morgon
papardelle, porcini tomato ragu, porcini carpaccio, snow peas
olive oil poached wild marble king salmon, smoked beets, sea beans, pickled green strawberries, arugula pesto, parmesan fluff, sunchoke chips
(WOOPS, FORGOT TO SNAP THE PHOTO)
milk braised pork cheeks, fregola sarda, english peas, spearmint, pork belly cream
chocolate mint ice cream, white chocolate ganache cones
peach & thyme galette, blackberry buttermilk panna cotta, bacon ice cream, salted caramel
It is uncanny that after eleven years, in the same dining room with a design that has never changed, contradictory eras of great and average performances have come and gone. Today Woodfire Grill is better than it has ever been, and Atlanta might never have experienced anything like it before.