On a recent working weekend, after Adam and I were rejected by Busy Bee Cafe (they are closed on Saturdays), we were forced to look elsewhere for grub. We volleyed back and forth until Adam suggested Paschal’s, a long-standing highbrow soul food joint. It’s amazing to me how many times I’ve visited Castleberry Hills for a meal, only to drive right past Paschal’s. Furthermore, it’s not a particularly good sign that when pressed to come up with a place to get my Suth’un fix in, Paschal’s almost never comes to mind. This despite the fact that it is in close proximity to where I work/live.
Started as a motor hotel by a couple of brothers way back yonder, this Atlanta mainstay has gone the way of corporate America. As my only previous visits to Paschal’s occurred around the time I just started to learn my two plus two’s, I cannot really speak to what once was. What we have now, for better or worse, is the fine dining version of Mary Mac’s Tea Room.
Instead of the Paschal family, Clark Atlanta University now runs the the “Paschal Center.” The hotel has been predictably converted into a dormitory while the restaurant continues to operate. By all accounts, that change in ownership, which took place in 1996, precipitated a sudden drop in the quality of food put out by Paschal’s.
While the management company that now operates the establishment may not have done themselves any favors with regards to the food, the interior is spacious, clean, and well laid out. Walking into the the gigantic dining space, you can’t help but wonder what type of food you are about to sample. High ceilings, a demonstrative stair case, and a long bar featuring a few flat screens give this restaurant a somewhat generic feel. It’s not cold, just polished. Complemented by a well-dressed, well-spoken staff, there is a classy texture to the environment. While many people seem to prefer their fried chicken in a shack (mmmm …Carver’s), the attitude adjustment for this cuisine is not entirely unwelcome.
Shortly after our seating, I placed an order for an Arnold Palmer. I must say, it was refreshing to hear the server oblige and run off towards the back. While I don’t expect the folks at Antico Pizza to have any idea what an Arnold P is (Iced tea + Lemonade), every Southern Kitchen should be familiar with the term. Kind and polite, this level of competency was constantly on display … until the very end. Though nothing to get bent out of shape over, our server did seem to disappear soon after we finished our meal. It seems all to commonplace in the restaurant biz.
While the menu changes with the meal at hand, it is dominated by two particular items: fried seafood and fried chicken. Certainly there are exceptions (shrimp & grits is one), but if you are at Paschal’s, you’re probably there to expand your waste line.
To start, we sampled an order of the catfish fingers. These thinly sliced strips of catfish were rolled in a thick cornmeal batter, deep fried, and served with the predictable choice of a remoulade. Think of these as as a fishstick/chicken finger hybrid. On the outside, the grainy batter starts to dry out your taste buds posthaste. Against the soft, juicy fish … the balance is actually a bit unnerving. While I’m a fan of crunch, the weight of the batter caused the fingers to fall apart at the lightest of touches. Bites were accompanied by a somewhat bland finish. More salt, lighter batter, and you have a winner. I suppose I should mention the remoulade …
Desperately in need of some carbs after that all too healthy appetizer, Adam took one for the team and ordered the chicken. This left me the ability to venture out. As this is a soul food restaurant, adventure isn’t really that available. Ultimately, I settled in on the shrimp plate.
Served with a choice of sides (I took the corn, mashed taters, and potato salad), the six shrimp were un-inspiringly laid out on a track of lettuce. Meanwhile, the sides came courtesy of an ice cream scoop, thus leaving the presentation of the dish rather off-putting. Using an ice cream scoop to serve up potato salad and mashed potatoes is a bad choice. It usually means the sides are prepared well in advance and with a “mass quantity” mentality. It showed. Nothing about the two potato sides, nor my corn, showed any semblance of quality control the atmosphere and price tag demanded.
Meanwhile, the shrimp were coated in the same cornmeal batter used on the catfish. While it was somewhat of a failure against the soft texture of the fish, the batter did not work well at all with the shrimp. Texturally frustrating and completely bland, the one saving grace could have been the shrimp themselves. Unfortunately, the freshly used shellfish was overshadowed by the lettuce. Odd, I know … but hear me out. When you lay a hot item fried in a batter that isn’t designed to really adhere to the protein, what ends up happening is that the batter will steam the lettuce. This in turn, will soften the batter causing it to fall off and/or turn soggy. It wasn’t as frustrating as this description might seem, but for a $17 dish with only six shrimp, I would have liked a better performance.
Meanwhile, Adam’s fried chicken was a much more important aspect of the meal. Fried chicken is a dish that reputations are built on … and Paschal’s is purportedly just such a cooked fowl. Thankfully, the cornmeal batter wasn’t used here. Instead, the fry-man used a much more traditional flour coating. Still, it was absent of the necessary salts and flavors to really drive it out of the park. Flavor wise, everything was fine … but not very notable. The true problem with the chicken was in the cooking. Light and dark meats must be cooked separately as dark meat takes longer to cook. If you cook the dark meat to perfection, the white meat gets dried out. Conversely, if you cook the white meat until it is spot on … the dark meat will be really “wet” and have a greasy feel to it. I’m not sure that Paschal’s makes the necessary adjustments depending on which part of the chicken they drop in the fryer. Adam’s dark meat was super slippery. Again, with a massive price tag, a lofty reputation, and some stiff competition in the close vicinity, I can’t see this being a real draw for the restaurant unless something is changed.
So while there weren’t any outright flops … there were more than a few flips. I don’t want to say that things need a complete overhaul, after all … this place has been around longer than I have. However, based on this one meal, it doesn’t seem like a destination worthy dinner for those in the nearby.
Paschal’s is a southern kitchen decked out in all its possible glory. If there ever was a family atmosphere to the place, that seems to be a thing of the past. However, that doesn’t mean the warm welcome of a sharply dressed employee is somehow a disservice.
Ultimately, this place seems best suited for a family gathering or a place to take out of town guests who aren’t familiar with the local cuisine. It’s good enough that it will fix a craving and nice enough that you don’t have to feel bad about suggesting fried chicken while in your Sunday best (or Saturday best … or whatever day you decide to be at your best). Flat … yes … but not out of air … yet!