Big Time: A friend of mine recently asked me what, exactly, would be the critical mass for good fine-dining restaurants in Athens. In other words, how many places targeting the same market can this town afford to support? The chart doesn’t exactly show a steep increase, but their numbers do seem to have been increasing of late, whether due to the influence of Five & Ten (as talented people pass through its kitchen and go on to start their own eateries) or, more likely, the fact that being a chef now is as cool as being in an indie-rock band was a few years ago. This town now has slightly more than a handful of restaurants that can compete with the big boys over in Atlanta, and The Branded Butcher (225 N. Lumpkin St.) is one of them. Chef Matt Palmerlee was previously responsible for the kitchen at Farm 255 and was involved with the Four Coursemen for six years or so. Despite his former veganism, the man knows his way around some charcuterie, and the items he’s offering here are a step up from what they were at Farm, focused on a more well rounded presentation than merely a plate of cured meats.
The main concerns I’ve heard so far about the new restaurant are that it’s too meat-centric and that it’s too expensive, both of which are not exactly true. Much of the menu isn’t particularly meaty, although some of it is, and if you avoid the $32 filet, you can dine well and happily for a totally reasonable sum. Little snacks top the menu, featuring pimento goat cheese, house-made pork rinds and salt-and-vinegar fried hominy, the latter a near-perfect bar munchie akin to the cancha (toasted corn) available at Peruvian restaurants. If Palmerlee’s cooking has a flaw, it may be that he relies on both salt and sour too much, using punchy flavors to do the heavy lifting, but it works. If you wish oysters, they are available, but they are not inexpensive, priced in a comparable range to the ones at Five & Ten. Better to spend your dime on the charcuterie, which includes guanciale (smoked pig jowl), pork belly confit, chicken liver mousse, smoked trout rillettes (sort of a pâté in a jar, well executed if not as much fun as the porkier versions of the dish, but paired with a gorgeous jelly of dill and pickled radishes that brightens the palate and elevates the preparation) and an incredibly cute and well done Scotch egg. Essentially a hard-boiled egg encased in ground sausage and deep fried, the presentation here is fantastic, with the egg halved and bedded on a celery root remoulade that mimics a nest; a whiskey gastrique adds a welcome note of reticent sweetness.
If you only get one thing at The Branded Butcher, get the grilled okra that comes with a side of whipped bone marrow. “Ew!” I hear you saying, at least those of you who don’t already love osso buco. Trust me. The combination of faintly bitter, slippery, browned vegetable with creamy, mayo-esque, salty-sweet-umami dunking medium is wonderful, on par with the best dishes I have had in Athens, and it has the transcendence of the gross that equals some of the best culinary pleasures around. If you aim to eat lighter, the vegetable plate changes frequently, according to what’s in season. On my visit, it included more okra, with romesco; lacinato kale sauteed quickly with acid and plenty of salt; sliced beautiful tomatoes; and a buttery, delicate corn and squash empanada with a smoked tomato aioli so BBQ-reminiscent that I made the waiter confirm it was meat-free. At $12, it’s actually a bargain. The mussels have less of a wow factor, and the central shellfish in the dish may be the most underwhelming thing about it, but the broth they peek out of is increasingly impressive, holding chickpeas, olives, bits of orange and fennel and making you wish for a loaf of bread rather than the few pieces it arrives with. The cup provided for your empty shells is far too small and necessitates far too many visits by the staff to replace it with a clean one. Dessert is well intentioned and creative but is clearly the weakness on the menu. A homemade Moon-pie with graham cracker ice cream is a step up from the real thing but still not that exciting, and the ice cream has some crystallization.
The wine list is nice, with budget selections alongside pricier ones, and the service hits the sweet spot between too-cool-for-you and overly friendly. The menu is informative without obsessing over which farm supplied each and every ingredient, and the overall atmosphere is pleasantly laid back. There are surprises when the food comes out of the kitchen, but not bad ones. No one will tell you about your chicken’s massage schedule or hover as you take your first bite. The restaurant is open for dinner nightly, for Sunday brunch and from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday for oysters and cocktails. It has a full bar and takes credit cards.
What Up?: Peaches Fine Foods on Broad Street has closed. Stuffed Burger on the Eastside is now open.