Nestled amongst Atlanta’s stretch of tasseled "thingies” and institutional eateries is one of the best examples of contemporary American cuisine this side of the Mason-Dixon. Chef Kevin Gillespie, still shy of 30-years-old, has taken Woodfire Grill from the brink of EXtinction to the point of DIStinction. If Atlanta’s hopes of international culinary fame are to ever come to fruition, Woodfire Grill will be one of the handful of establishments dragging our restaurant scene into that arena.
Some two-years ago, the highly regarded Michael Tuohy departed the helm of Woodfire. When that happened, Gillespie took over the Cheshire Bridge hideaway and continued Woodfire’s thematic direction. In the 20 plus months since, the restaurant has exploded and our favorite Yukon Cornelius impersonator has made the place distinctly his own. With that in mind, and motivated by a truly inspirational family event, four of us set out this past Friday looking for a little peace in the midst of our chaos.
Woodfire Grill sits on the sunset side of Cheshire Bridge near that breezeway’s interlope with Piedmont Road. The somewhat unassuming and hidden house, with a burnt orange ‘n brown exterior, has an entrance that almost reminds me of something out of a psych ward. The “naked as the day you were born” entrance leads you into one of the most unique restaurant layouts this city knows. Complete with a communal table and cocktail stands for chilaxing, the bar (for dining only) gives way to a snow white room with all sorts of interesting accents and even vaulted ceilings. Trimmed and stamped, there is an intimacy in its openness that settles you in. As such, it’s a feeling that extends to the area upstairs. It was there in the lower level, amongst a sea of pillows and a wood bench booth, that we settled in; given enough eye candy to keep us occupied, we were not distracted from our true intentions.
Shortly after our seating, we went through all the usual meet and greets with the service staff and the menu for the night. Gillespie keeps the food at WG under heavy rotation, so its important not to focus too much on the individual assembly from our meal. Regardless, Kev and his team (executive sous chef EJ Hodgkinson, sous chef Steve McConnell, and pastry chef Brittany Emerson) provided us with a full gamut of kick ass in a sixteen player lineup. Less is more, less is more!
Oooh … start me off with a little amuse-bouche of deconstructed cole slaw:
There are two great misconceptions surrounding the food at WG: simplicity and locality. Second things first, it is true that Gillespie has a passion for the slow food movement and organically awesome G.A. (if you need proof – turn your menu over when you get it). Though powered by local farmers like Love is Love Farm, Sweetgrass Dairy, and Crystal Organics, Gillespie knows the power of life abroad. Case in point, a magically pan seared Washington state halibut ($29). Matched with sautéed beet greens and kale, and joined by smoked beet-horseradish purée, pickled mushrooms, and roasted baby beets, Gillespie proudly expands our locale repertoire. As for the dish – holy wow softness kicked by just the right bite (horseradish). I couldn’t quite figure out how something so straightforward could be so god damn good. Oh yeah, top notch execution, and a twist here and there.
This leads me to the second of the aforementioned points. I’ve often heard Gillespie’s cooking identified as “simple.” This is simply not the case. While he may forgo the fancy techniques of Hervé This, Woodfire’s food is far too creative and inspired. And yes, you can make that determination after a single meal.
Take for example the starting salad of baby arugula, lemon infused local blueberries, local feta cheese, and Georgia peach vinaigrette ($10). This dish managed to play the role of dessert, but at the onset of our blissful indulgence. Sweet berries ejected lemony tartness at the mere press of my teeth. The salad went down swiftly and without so much as a whimper.
Ladies and gents, there is nothing simple in beautifully seared diver scallop atop sugar snap peas, butterbean purée, wilted lettuce, and herbed beurre fondue. Ever heard of beurre? Don’t feel bad … but it’s a flour and butter paste that ain’t so easy to execute. While you think about that, I’ll spend my time remembering BLEEP me silly goodness of a wood grilled Sonoma artisan duck breast over a summer salad with wood oven roasted squash creamed leeks, and heirloom BROCCOLI!!!! Yes, for those of you familiar with my writing, broccoli
is was the only single ingredient that I was convinced could not be prepared properly [See: Stewie]. While I’ll be damned if I let that evil into my mouth anytime in the near future, KG – you just did the impossible (ask Mama Buddha).
Bites of that bad boy robustly pounced on my tongue. It announced, through an inspired assembly and execution, that good food can be found.
I want to talk about the wood grilled local bobwhite quail ($28), or the juicy pork loin over southern style creamed corn with cabbage dumplings, sorghum two ways, and ham powder (shamefully pictured above for $30). But I think that ventures into the area of cruel and unusual punishment on you the reader.
The one notable misstep of the evening was the dessert. On account of the fact that our entire table wasn’t up for the tasting menu (5 courses at $65 – full table participation), we ventured into the sweets (all $8). In between the creative, but oddly placed, melon sashimi and the pineapple avocado flan or the citrus cheesecake, we found ourselves playing in a land of after dinner purgatory …
[the family is planning a vacation]
Peter Griffin: We could always go to purgatory like we did last year.
Lois Griffin: This isn’t bad. It’s not good, but it’s not bad.
Brian Griffin: So so.
Peter Griffin: More or less.
I’m quantitatively unqualified to speak on this area of the meal – but nobody at the table enjoyed it. Bummer. Still, that faux pas did little to deter my love of the meal.
While Gillespie’s ever changing menu finds its inspiration in Southern food, he spends way too much time pulling in techniques from haute cuisine and ingredients from well outside our region to be pigeon holed so distinctly. For whatever you think the reason, the real story behind the month long reservation waitlist is the skill set of the chef at the top.
Though I’ve had his food at least half-a-dozen times, this was my first visit to WG since I started paying attention. Further exploration is needed to see if purées become a crutch, if the restaurant can keep its sheen while the master is away, or if there are any holes that need to be plugged beyond the disappointing desserts.
What is truly apparent after one sitting: Gillespie may be this city’s best palate master. His knowledge and understanding of textural assembly and flavor balancing puts him in rare company. As I am considered by many to be the evil beast of this blogging community, I am glad to say that this beast has been conquered. This wasn’t a meal, this was edible art.
Oh yeah, my pictures were a stretch … ughghghg … such an unfair way to treat the meal. Thankfully, we have Rowdy, who got to know Kevin back when and who was kind enough to throw this vid together:
Atlanta Foodies on Woodfire Grill
- The Q&DD on Woodfire Grill (01.22.10)
- Live to Feast on Woodfire Grill (10.12.09)
- Decatur Wine & Food Dude on Woodfire Grill (07.29.09)