BAR FOOD, PART 1: How does a town develop a food scene? It’s kind of like a petri dish full of bacteria. A welcoming environment plus one or two well-adapted microbes (i.e., chefs) leads to reproduction on an increasing scale. A couple of smart, ambitious kitchens can do well enough, but the side effect is that they then train more folks who know what they’re doing and, eventually, aim to put their own stamp on the area. Five and Ten and Farm 255 have been that for this town, and we’re starting to realize the effects of their having sprouted here, not least with two recent attempts at bar food that’s a cut above.
How The World Famous (351 N. Hull St., 706-543-4002) doesn’t have a line out the door at lunch is beyond me. Sure, it’s tiny and it hasn’t done a lot of advertising yet, but Bain Mattox’s newest venture isn’t short on charm. Reclaimed wood, two vintage pinball machines, large bowls of citrus and fresh flowers (!!!) on the bar, drinks with cute names and well-thought-out lists of components, a giant and beautifully drawn chalkboard menu, good local art and the preservation of the Wilson’s sign would be enough reasons. It’s almost embarrassing that Jarad Blanton (ex-Farm Cart, ex-The National) is adding to the list with his high-concept menu that seriously delivers.
Photo Credit: Gabe Vodicka
It’s bar food, no question about it, nearly everything coming with a wet nap or two on the side, and, as such, the flavors aren’t shy, but there’s a surprising sophistication at work, too. Here’s an example. The menu includes a chicken and waffle sandwich. Chicken and waffle sandwiches are universally awful, usually a thin and dry hunk of meat between too overly sweet, soggy waffles and nothing more. But Blanton sources his chicken carefully. He uses dark meat rather than white, which guarantees improvement. The waffles are thick but not doughy. The maple butter sauce is palpable but not overwhelming. And he makes his own hot sauce from locally farmed peppers that ties the whole thing together. It’s kind of ridiculously impressive. You’ll also need a wet nap.
A $3 basket of french fries comes with two tasty sauces (is there grapefruit zest in the ketchup?), the pretzel bites with Parmesan and oregano are weird little chewy nuggets and the falafel includes a marvelous tomato jam and house-pickled red onions. The shrimp roll is sandwiched inside a a bun so good and thoroughly buttery without venturing into grease that I would happily eat the bread alone. The two best items on the menu are the poutine (French-Canadian cheese fries with beef gravy), which is powerful stuff, a pile of socko flavor, and the pork steamed buns, with hoisin, red miso pickles and sweet chili mayo.
The place doesn’t have macho attitude, but the food does, in the best way. Blanton is trying to go a few rounds with your tastebuds, to make you use your senses and your brain at the same time. With everything on the list coming in at less than $10 and the room exceedingly pleasant to sit in, the days of being the only person in the place are no doubt numbered.
BAR FOOD, PART 2: Let’s not forget Matt Palmerlee (ex-Farm 255, currently The Branded Butcher), who recently took over the culinary gig at the Georgia Theatre, now named The Rooftop. Equally committed to making you think and making you eat things you might not have considered otherwise, he’s having his own fun with bar nibbles high atop Athens.
His burger, topped with Tillamook cheddar and awesome housemade pickles, is a soft, delicious bite, both committed to the simplicity of a basic cheeseburger and carefully balancing the zip of those pickles with the faint sweetness of the egg bun and the seared exterior of the meat. It doesn’t need a bit of ketchup. The veggie banh mi, which he used to make in his Farm Cart days, isn’t even close to traditional, but you don’t need the meat. Packed with sliced hard-boiled eggs, red cabbage, pickled carrots, a gentle sriracha sauce (the spice has been tamed) and cilantro, it is uncommonly satisfying for a mere $5.
The “meats and cheese,” a platter of salume, dairy and snackies, is likewise a wonderfully simple and pitch-perfect plate, with tremendous finocchiona, a soft cheese from Thomasville’s Sweetgrass Dairy and housemade jam. The deviled eggs (three for $4) slide around in their basket, but the one that incorporates sriracha will make you rethink your grandma’s recipe. The tomato-based BBQ sauce is a little too on the sweet side, but the pork is good stuff and, again, Palmerlee’s expertise lies in composition; his decision to add some of the same pickled vegetables as live on the banh mi sets off the pork Korean style, giving it freshness. The corn tortillas for the tacos are too stiff to fold in at the end to prevent leakage, but the same array of well-paired ingredients is on display, even with the tofu ones.
The Rooftop is no secret. It’s regularly busy. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.