Food & DrinkGrub Notes

Joel Penn Takes the Reins at Heirloom Café

It’s been four years since Heirloom Café and Fresh Market (815 N. Chase St., 706-354-7901) opened in a renovated gas station in the heart of Boulevard, and the restaurant has done a fine job becoming part of the Athens community. A fair amount has changed since 2011, too. The market component came and then went. (I miss the terrific egg salad.) A full bar and craft cocktails were added. The delicious breakfast was sadly unsustainable, but its offerings are still available on weekends for a very popular brunch.

Joel Penn, formerly of The National, is the latest to take the reins in the kitchen, and he has made some long-needed changes to the menu. There’s something to say for being able to order a favorite whenever you want, but customers also need to be willing to try new things, and it’s the responsibility of chefs to push them toward doing so. Yes, you can still get the lentil-pecan burger, the pimento cheese sandwich and the meatloaf sandwich, but there is much that is new.

Penn has a great affinity for tangy, spicy, pickle-y flavors, which complement pastry chef Johanna Nicol’s reimagined American classics nicely. It’s a bold move to put a fancy version of chicken mull—the aggressively simple chicken soup native to the Athens region—on your menu, but Penn’s is successful; its origins are easily recognizable, but it improves on the potentially weak points of the dish, with buttermilk and a great house hot sauce. A chilled summer squash soup is nothing like what one might expect, with notes of curry powder and lovely surprises of peanuts and pickled strawberries hidden within. A vegetable wrap that has since rotated off the menu was both bitter and virtuous but also delightful, not apologizing for but celebrating its thinly sliced raw brassica. Most wraps are terrible. This one was lovely.

The bread is a bit of a weak spot, sourced from H&F Bread Co. in Atlanta. H&F is well thought of, but the baguette for a lamb sausage banh mi interfered with the sandwich instead of complementing it, and the white bread that comes with an otherwise superlative hot chicken has too dense a crumb (it falls apart under pressure) and an underlying sweetness that calls attention to itself.

You cannot eat the hot chicken like a sandwich, despite the two pieces of bread that come underneath it, theoretically enabling you to pick it up in the usual fashion. Give in to your fancy-pants instincts and carve it up with a knife and fork, making sure to get some of the buttermilk yogurt on the side and a bit of one of the bread-and-butter pickle slices. It’s sophisticated without getting too far away from the real thing, just like the mull, and although it will not make your ears ring, it has a combination of heat and complex spicing that will keep you interested.

A black-eyed pea hummus in the “snacks” section of the menu, which comes with housemade crackers, is perfectly executed: not so thick that your dipping implement shatters; made with more delicate, slightly floral pink-eyed peas; and with a gentle hint of citrus that lightens up the whole thing. The deviled eggs, often served too cold at restaurants, are spot on, too, with little that is extraneous apart from the small salad underneath them; why get weird when you have great eggs?

The vegetable plate, at dinner, is a better idea than an entree. It’s plenty substantial, and it has a lot of variety, but the components don’t play all that nicely together. A cucumber salad with mint, apple and benne seeds is refreshing but too vinegary, and it doesn’t mesh at all with a sort of Thai eggplant treatment, heavy on peanuts and not all that much of a sales point in favor of the vegetable. Fried whole okra, a summer vegetable succotash and a piece of cornbread in the middle are unassertive. It’s an opportunity for experimentation, though, and Penn’s experience with The National’s “power lunch” is evidence he has the chops to improve it. A pan-roasted trout with Carolina gold rice, edamame, peanuts, hot sauce and buttermilk is cooked beautifully.

Nicol’s desserts are playful but desire to please. A frozen chocolate mousse with peanuts, salted caramel and marshmallow cream is uncompromising and friendly at the same time, like a fancy frozen Snickers bar. The ice cream sandwiches made with Il Gelato’s product in the middle and Nicol’s cookies (e.g., mascarpone gelato with red velvet cake rounds and spiced pecans around the edges; rosemary gelato with buckwheat sable and orange sugar) are the same combo of cute but not cutesy, simple but not simplistic.

If you are looking for something light to drink and do not want to commit to a cocktail, follow your waiter’s enthusiasm and opt for a Famosa, a Guatemalan lager served with lime. The growth and change that should be natural and often end up stunted in restaurants afraid to alienate their core customers are a very good thing here. Heirloom is open for weekday lunch, happy hour and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and weekend brunch, with a full bar and a good patio.