Sadly, Simon died in 2015, due to complications of MSA, a rare form of Parkinson’s disease. Harwell pays tribute to his friend and colleague with a sign at Carson Kitchen that reads “Keep Calm and Kerry On” — as well as a mural of Simon painted on a patio wall by local artist Jeff Surace.
But the menu is often inspired by the Southern dishes Harwell’s grandmother made for him at home in Woodstock. And he says the success of the restaurant “was built on a philosophy of reimagined comfort food prepared with approachable fine dining ingredients.”
Look for signatures like Young Beets with pistachio, mandarin orange and goat cheese; Crispy Chicken Skins with smoked honey; Black Rice & Oxtail Risotto with Parmesan cream; Pork Schnitzel with pickled potatoes and dill cream; and Glazed Donut Bread Pudding with triple rum caramel and vanilla crème anglaise.
The beverage menu highlights cocktails like the Towns End, with Slow & Low whiskey, Fernet, amaro, and orange and angostura bitters. And look for a good number of local beers, and wines by the glass or bottle.
Housed on the ground floor of a brick building that replicates the old 1848 Milton County courthouse, the intimate space offers seating for 92 inside, and an additional 38 outside.
There’s a long, inviting marble-topped bar along one side of the dining room. But the focal point of the build-out is the open kitchen. It’s fronted by another marble bar that serves as a chef’s table, where guests can get an up-close view of the action, and drop bills into a “swear jar” if someone happens to utter a bad word.
Last week, Harwell sat down at a table at Carson Kitchen to talk about his background and return to Georgia.
“Food has always been a big part of connectivity in our family, and that stems from my grandmother,” Harwell said. “I don’t think there’s a better way of connecting with another human being than sharing a meal with them. I noticed early on that everything that our family did, whether we were celebrating birthdays or weddings or graduations or even the death of a loved one, it involved some form of food and beverage.
“At the 1904 House, there were a couple of ladies who worked in the kitchen that got me to help them out. I started prepping stuff with them, and learning how to make pot roast and mashed potatoes, and all the things that restaurant was known for. I absolutely fell in love with it. To me, it was such a tremendously gratifying feeling to make something and have someone appreciate it.”
Still, getting into the restaurant business full time was a long, slow journey, starting with waiting tables, bartending and working the front of house, Harwell said.
“When I was going to school in New York City, I wanted to be an actor and a comedian,” he said. “The old joke when someone says ‘I’m an actor’ in New York, the immediate response is, ‘Oh yeah? What restaurant do you work at?’ So all this time I worked in restaurants, I knew I loved the industry.
“When I moved to Las Vegas, I thought I would go for a year, save up a little money, come back to New York and continue a sort of struggling artist existence. But that was 22 years ago, and I never left Las Vegas. It took me a little while to finally put on the chef’s jacket and put my money where my mouth was. But once I did in December of 2008, I never looked back, and I’ve been doing my own thing ever since.”
Asked to explain exactly what that thing is, Harwell said it’s epitomized by Carson Kitchen.
“I think Carson Kitchen really embraces my two philosophies,” he said. “One is I want to modernize and introduce you to dishes you’re already familiar with. How can I make it relevant today? The other one is how can I introduce the regular, everyday Joe to typically fine dining ingredients — things they’re intimidated by both from a price point and and an overall flavor perspective?
“I realized that if I could take those ingredients and house them in a familiar, much more comfortable vehicle, then people are much more likely to expand their palate, and try something a little new. So how do I get people to try caviar? I put it on top of deviled eggs. How do I get people to eat oxtails? I put it in risotto. So we’re almost tricking you into trying new things by making them so much more familiar and comfortable.”
Alpharetta City Center, 4 S. Main St., Alpharetta. 770-696-1752, carsonkitchen.com.
Scroll down for more images from a First Look at Carson Kitchen in Alpharetta
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