Airport dining ups its game with Ecco

Consider: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta has, give or take, about 130 dining options. These include two branches of McDonald’s, seven of Starbucks, a Quizno’s Subs, a Pizza Hut Express, a Teriyaki Experience (Experience? Seriously?), an Arby’s, three T.G.I. Friday’s, two T.G.I. Friday’s To Go and — if all else fails — 10 banks of vending machines.

There are some better options, most notably One Flew South on Concourse E, with its tourist-friendly menu of sushi and New South cooking, as well as the new Atlanta Chophouse in the atrium with its serious steaks. All the same, the world’s busiest airport has long honed its reputation as the world’s most boring place to eat with the world’s most forlorn flight delay victims.

Well, attention, passengers: The next stop is Concourse F, Concourse F as in “feed your face.”

The opening of Ecco this March in the new Maynard Jackson International Terminal marked a serious upping of Hartsfield-Jackson’s game. A near duplicate of the Midtown restaurant of the same name, Ecco serves small plates, pizzas, pastas and a few main courses. It’s “Mediterranean,” which here means Italian with a few sidelong glances toward the coast of Spain and its tapas culture.

But it also means you can sit down to a most respectable plate of cured meats and cheeses, a glass of excellent Old World wine, and vegetables that appear to have come from local earth rather than some hydroponic romaine and cucumber farm on the moon.

Airport Ecco is owned and operated by the HMSHost Corp. — a company that likes to partner with local restaurant groups throughout the country to bring local flavors and talents to the often-grim business of airport concessions. Here, they’re working with the Fifth Group, which trained many of the staffers in both the kitchen and dining room. If you know the Midtown restaurant, you’ll be surprised by just how faithfully its golden brown decor has been reproduced, with the same creamy light cast by a replica of its distinctive glowing-wheel chandelier from local artist Chris Moulder.

True, the patio opens to the concourse rather than to open air, and the prices are about 10 percent higher than in Midtown. But you know that depressing box of chicken Caesar salad will cost you airport prices, too.

Is the food just as good? Hard to say after just one visit, but I’m going to say it’s ballpark. The signature fried goat cheese fritters may taste a bit more of fryer oil than I recall, but the dish has the same finesse — the mere daub of honey in the bottom of the plate, bits of cracked pepper that are big enough to crack between your teeth. The savory gush of cheese wins out, as it should.

A grilled pork chop priced at $26.69 gave me a moment of sticker shock, but it did everything a thick pork chop should — namely encourage you to appreciate both its caramelized edges and juicy pink center while paying special attention to that nice, soft nubbin of meat by the bone. It arrived straddling a pile of herbed farro studded with fava beans and (a few too many) chunks of orange rind, sweet and savory, a world away from the Concourse A food court. A good Lavazza espresso was all I needed for dessert.

However, if you’re into wine, Ecco’s beverage program may be a bigger draw than the food. Of the 40 or so wines available by the glass, the best ones and most expensive ones get tapped from the nitrogen gas preservation system behind the bar. I like to tell myself I’m the kind of person who is happier with one great glass of wine than with three gin and tonics. I did very slowly savor my one glass of Alsatian white wine — a lively, honeyed, golden-hued Marc Tempe Pinot Gris Zellenberg served at an ideal cool temperature. Very slowly because it was $19.75.

Slow sipping gave me the opportunity to eavesdrop on a woman at the bar who was busily giving off Seasoned Traveler tips to the stranger next to her. I couldn’t quite hear everything but heartily enjoyed these snippets:

“… Austin is only city in Texas to visit …”

“… this amazing sushi restaurant in Dubai …”

The bartender looked amused.

I got the feeling that Ecco has already attracted its fair share of regulars over the two months it has been open. Fifth Group partner Robby Kukler did confirm this in a phone conversation. “There are people who eat there every week,” he said, adding that the epicurean airport regular is just the kind of person HMSHost hopes to corral.

I’m not sure I could regularly eat $26.69 pork chops, but could easily see sharing a $14.69 pizza and a $16.59 cured meat board when a rainstorm strands me at the airport. For a few dollars, you can get a roasted beet and watercress salad, a pile of garlic shrimp, a dish of marcona almonds, a bowl of spring pea soup. It’s real food, an all-too-rare commodity in the hermetic world of air travel.

By the way, Concourse F aims mightily hard to dish out local flavors. Among the other concessions on this concourse, look for:

  • The Varsity: Perhaps someone in Dubai is swanning in a bar, saying, “There’s this amazing beverage in the Atlanta airport. It’s called a Frosted Orange.”
  • The Pecan: A Southern food cafeteria in the food court that uses recipes developed by the College Park restaurant. I’ll have to see if its collard greens stack up to the cooked-for-eternity version from Paschal’s.
  • The Original El Taco: A not-quite-the-same facsimile of the Virginia-Highland taco joint, also a Fifth Group property.
  • Sweet Auburn Market Cafe: Pastries, coffee drinks, chocolates and light meals. I’m not sure this feels anything like the real Sweet Auburn, but it’s nice to get the name out there.

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