In late September, Root Baking Co. opened in the upstairs section of the Central Food Hall at Ponce City Market.
Outlined with vintage windows, the airy, light-filled space mixes minimalist decor with greenhouse-like displays of potted plants. The menu features daily artisan and heritage grain breads, plus pastries, breakfast items, toasts, snacks, salads, soups and sandwiches.
Root’s husband-and-wife owners, Chris Wilkins and Nicole Lewis, and executive chef Matthew Palmerlee have shared histories that stretch from Vermont to Athens, and on to Savannah, Charleston and Atlanta.
Wilkins worked at Red Hen Baking Co. in Vermont and Independent Baking Co. in Athens, before taking on the bread program at chef Hugh Acheson’s short-lived Savannah restaurant, the Florence.
In Charleston, Wilkins and Lewis opened the first iteration of Root as a wholesale bakery out on Johns Island, where they created elegantly rustic regionally influenced breads with ingredients like grits and sorghum, and delivered them to appreciative chefs at restaurants such as Edmund’s Oast.
An opportunity to open at Ponce City Market with an expanded concept lured Wilkins and Lewis to Atlanta in early 2018.
Palmerlee’s background includes time at Farm 255 and Branded Butcher in Athens and Last Word in Atlanta, where he was known for everything from vegan dishes to charcuterie. More recently, Palmerlee was Acheson’s traveling chef, which is how he met Wilkins.
Last week, Wilkins and Palmerlee sat down at a big, round communal table at Root and talked about their vision for the bakery restaurant.
“It was the right opportunity and the right person, so you just jump at those moments,” Wilkins said, explaining the move to Atlanta. “Matt and I had been friends, and talking about food, we would say, ‘We’ve got to do something together someday.’ So we thought this would be a great opportunity to combine our efforts.
“We share a space here. But I have no idea how to cook food. I’m a baker. And we’re pretty particular about the kind of baking we do. So when you meet someone who’s interested in using that, it’s special. And I think that’s what Matt’s food does. Somehow, my sorghum bread tastes more like sorghum bread when there’s Matt’s chicken salad on it. It’s elevated in a way it wasn’t before.”
Palmerlee serves his breakfast menu from 7-11 a.m. Mondays-Saturdays, and all day on Sunday, starring flaky croissant sandwiches with the likes of egg, Comté cheese, herbs, and melted leeks.
On the all-day menu, you’ll find butter-toasted grit bread with labneh and grapefruit marmalade. A crispy grain salad is loaded up with a panoply of seeds, broccoli, pickled vegetables, radishes, chickpeas, green olives, boiled egg, shaved Parmesan, walnut, and Champagne dressing.
Wilkins’ favorite, the roasted chicken sandwich is flavored with harissa pickled carrots and “lots of herbs” and wrapped in waxed paper, Japanese konbini-style.
“The palette I play with is very North African and Middle Eastern,” Palmerlee said. “To me, a lot of that just works with what Chris does. I use a lot of tahini, and those kind of flavors. There are lots of nuts, and seeds and grains, which are things you bake into bread. And a lot of it rotates seasonally.”
Coming soon, look for beer and wine, and a dinner menu Palmerlee is looking forward to getting underway with nightly specials.
“There are things I’ve been waiting to do here that just kind of make sense,” Palmerlee said. “When I was at Last Word, we hand-rolled couscous, and that will make an appearance in the next week or two for dinner. The idea is that Thursday, Friday, Saturday will be themes. So we might have a pasta night. We have a mill here, so we can definitely make pasta.”
675 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta. 470-639-8046, rootbaking.com.
Scroll down for more images from a First Look at Root Baking Co.