September 28, 2016

Craft Brings Upscale to the Eastside

Grub Notes

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Craft Public House

JUST KEEP SWIMMING: Maybe it’s not fair to describe the Eastside restaurant scene as beleaguered, just as it’s an exaggeration to call Baxter Street Athens’ boulevard of broken dreams. Just like on Baxter, there has been an uptick in the number of culinary options available along Barnett Shoals and Gaines School roads. Where is Athens’ only Ethiopian restaurant, Mannaweenta? The Eastside. Where is La Puerta del Sol, Bruno Rubio’s large and beautiful children’s paradise? The Eastside. And now there’s Craft Public House (1040 Gaines School Road, 706-850-4363), in the Ansonborough mixed-used development, a sort of gastropub that’s trying to bring something more upscale and chef-driven to the area.

In many ways, it succeeds. Considered against its immediate geographical area, it succeeds even more. The space is clean and simple, with the same long bar it had in its previous incarnation, as Charlie Nobles. Six beers on draft are all local (Creature Comforts, Terrapin, Southern Brewing and Copper Creek), plus there are craft thingies in cans and bottles (not a giant selection, but not a bad one) and a small menu of craft cocktails using a lot of sweet and sour ingredients (no Fernet Branca here).

The same food menu is served at both lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, with Sunday brunch varying more, and influences include Italian, Southern, Indian, Cali-Mex and the sort of generic “Asian” that finds its way into fusion cuisine. On the whole, as is true at many restaurants, the starters are better than the entrees; the kitchen does better the more it holds back (letting ingredients rather than sauces take the stage); and the menu tends to over-promise a bit. But there are very nice things to be had.

Among the starters, the Southern Breakfast may have under-crisped slices of pork belly, but its combination of pork, wedge of polenta, sweet and spicy peppers, chile jam and a lovely, well-executed sunny-side-up egg on the top is very good. The peppers and the jam assert themselves but don’t completely dominate, allowing the subtler flavor of the egg to infuse most bites. It should be on the brunch menu, but it’s not.

The house burger is made with grass-fed beef, but uses a patty too tightly packed into a ring mold, making it feel generic rather than individually crafted. The pork sirloin is likewise a bit of a letdown from its listing, with roasted poblano mac-’n’-cheese that lacks flavor aside from heat and a prickly-pear barbecue sauce with too much sugar that feels like it came out of a squeeze bottle.

On the other hand, the housemade black-pepper stuffed manicotti with fra diavolo sauce features beautiful fresh pasta. If the chiles could be dialed back just a bit, the kitchen’s skill would have a better chance to be noticed, but the dish works well as is. Samosa egg rolls are a smart way to present the classic filling of spiced peas and potatoes, and are well paired with a cilantro chutney that strongly resembles a chimichurri sauce. It doesn’t entirely work for dunking, but spoon it on and it jazzes up the rolls without blotting out their flavor. Different kinds of tacos change out (smoked duck, citrus-cured rockfish, chicken for the kids), but are fresh and tasty.

The prices may feel a little high ($8–$10 for apps, $15–$17 for entrees, for the most part), but they’re fair for the kind of restaurant Craft is. And once you’re in that mode of date night or a nice lunch, you might as well get dessert. The olive oil cake, with a layer of poached peaches, a topping of mascarpone and a side of ginger basil ice cream with a few sprigs of micro-greens, may be the best thing on the menu: smooth in texture and gently spiky in flavor, it’s well balanced and feels worth the fiscal and caloric price.

Craft Public House is open until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Sunday. It has a full bar and a kids’ menu.

COLLEGE PIZZA: Hungry Howie’s (529 Baxter St., 706-826-2600), a chain out of Michigan, has added its options, well described as “college pizza,” to the gauntlet down Baxter that includes Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Little Caesar’s. How to stand out? Sprinkle a flavor packet on your crust, or drizzle sriracha on everything.

That’s a bit tl;dr as a way of describing the options, but the flavored crust is not a bad innovation, depending on the flavor you pick. If you go for sriracha, you’ll be left with orange residue on your hands and almost no taste of pizza. The garlic-and-herb is apparently the most popular, but it mostly tastes burned. On the other hand, the ranch-flavored crust is totally good.

Howie Rolls are basically stromboli, and they’re okay as an add-on, but nothing special. There are decent salads, plus wings and calzones, but the pizza is the main attraction. Hungry Howie’s is open for lunch, dinner and late-night every day. It has a few tables for dine-in and serves no booze.