Doughnuts get a gourmet dunk

Aside from a periodic retro renaissance or two, doughnuts have been mostly shunned as empty-calorie abominations of a low-brow American palate. From Clark Gable's rebuke of Claudette Colbert's prissy dunking technique in "It Happened One Night" to Homer Simpson's dough-driven Pavlovian drool, these defenseless little circles of pastry have been on the wrong side of the culinary velvet rope for most of their lives.

But many beloved Atlanta chefs, even those with menus devoted to local and organic food, are persuading the knife-and-fork set to give doughnuts a fair shake. These five spots offer inspired, decidedly camp-free versions of a very misunderstood American treat.

DUCK'S COSMIC KITCHEN

The little takeaway shop and dining room tucked into East Decatur Station off College Avenue prides itself on making almost everything from scratch with food from meticulously chosen suppliers. Once a month, Duck's hosts a four-course Go Local dinner that showcases dishes made from local organic growers, complemented by local beers. But Duck's may be most famous for its baked doughnuts, selling about 650 of them every week.

Ann Duckworth won't say a word about the recipe, but customers like to rib her that the main ingredient has to be crack. Originally intended to be muffins, the recipe took many turns in a variety of pans before it grew into the craveable buttery, sugary coffee companion it is today. "We discovered those doughnuts by accident," she says. "Someone at the shop suggested we put them on the menu, and I said, 'These won't sell,' but they have paid the rent ever since."

THE 411: $2 each, 85 cents for a mini doughnut. 111-D New St., Decatur. 404-371-8823, www.duckscosmickitchen.com.

JCT KITCHEN

Everything except the bread is made from scratch at Ford Fry's calm-inducing JCT Kitchen, where classic Southern dishes, including fried chicken and fried pies, are treated with careful reverence and the freshest local ingredients. The same successful philosophy makes the Meyer lemon doughnuts with espresso ice cream a dessert that can't be passed up.

Chef de cuisine Brian Horn developed the recipe and says the dish is an interpretation of one of his favorite after-dinner drinks: a double espresso with vodka and a twist of lemon. There's no hint of alcohol, but the espresso ice cream and pretty plating — the doughnut holes come in an oversized cup — play with a coffee-and-doughnuts theme.

Sweet Meyer lemons are zested and incorporated into a pâte à choux, a kind of puff pastry used to make eclairs and profiteroles. Knobs of the dough are piped into the deep fryer when ordered. Out of the fryer, the hot doughnut holes are coated with powdered sugar and dried Meyer lemon zest. The espresso ice cream is homemade.

Horn says the dessert is popular but that people sometimes need to be coaxed to order a plate of doughnuts after a big meal.

"I think it's a little weird for people to order this dessert," Horn says. "But once they have them, they love them."

THE 411: $8. 1198 Howell Mill Road, Suite 18, West Midtown. 404-355-2252, www.jctkitchen.com.

HOLY TACO

Chef Robert Phalen modeled these after Spanish churros, which are denser and stay strong against a dunk in coffee than their airier Mexican cousins. But instead of coffee, these churros are dipped in a chocolate ganache made with a bitter Spanish dark chocolate that is served on the side.

There are a few other twists in the recipe. Phelan adds Frangelica to the dough instead of vanilla extract and throws in pinches of nutmeg and clove. They're fried in vegetable oil and rolled in cinnamon and sugar.

The best part is that the piping hot churros, about 12 of them, are served in a paper bag as a nod to their origins as street food.

THE 411: $3 for an order of 12. 1314 Glenwood Ave., East Atlanta Village. 404-230-6177, holy-taco.com.

HOLEMAN & FINCH PUBLIC HOUSE

This new concept bistro by celebrated Restaurant Eugene chef-owner Linton Hopkins is mainly about alternative cuts of meat. So after the pig ears and sweetbreads, save room for the simple sugar-glazed doughnuts.

They're the same ones created at Restaurant Eugene by executive pastry chef Chrysta Poulos, who fancies them up with peanut butter crème brûlée and oven-roasted Georgia strawberries for a high-end PB&J.

"Since Chrysta's doughnuts were so delicious, we said of course we have to have them on the menu here because it fits so beautifully," says chef Adam Biderman. At Holeman & Finch, they're served without adornments, just two doughnuts and two holes topped with a vanilla-laced confectioners sugar glaze. "Restaurant Eugene does a whole different concept with the dessert. We wanted to keep ours very straightforward."

Poulos says the doughnut will soon be paired with Holeman & Finch's Down Low Coca-Cola float dessert with fernet branca ice cream and candied lime.

THE 411: $4. 2277 Peachtree Road, Buckhead. 404-948-1175, www.holeman-finch.com.

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