Once a baker, always a baker.
Bakers-turned-chefs often continue to weave sweet notes into their savory food, which becomes their calling card. Indeed, my own savory cooking betrays my baking background.
This infusion of sweet can be both a baked blessing and a culinary curse. Because baker-chefs approach pairings with a unique perspective, they offer a new brand of creativity that can simultaneously surprise, delight and disappoint. Each dish brings a fresh opportunity to explore the blurring of sweet/savory boundaries.
Chef Christy Stone, who now helms the kitchen at the newly opened South Main Kitchen in Alpharetta, walks this candy rope. Stone began her culinary career by opening a bakery in Sandy Springs and later made the transition to the savory side as restaurant chef. Yet, at South Main Kitchen, she peppers the food with those sweet touches that recall her bakery beginnings. Stone’s approach mostly hits the mark at this hopping Alpharetta spot.
Guests cotton to the cooking, as they do to the restaurant experience. Inside South Main, completely outfitted in wood reclaimed from an old mill, you’ll feel as though you’ve crawled into the womb of a secret treehouse. Here you’ll join the thunderous din of the club of date-nighters and the odd family or pass through to the lair’s quieter balcony tables or rooftop bar, all similarly wood-styled. While the restaurant follows the trendy farm-to-table restaurant formula of rustic swag, dish-towel linens and the once-Mason-jar-now-beer-can glassware, it all comes together with soul.
South Main Kitchen provides a much-needed, chef-driven neighborhood hangout to add to Alpharetta’s growing collection of restaurants in its historic downtown revival. It would be my Alpharetta choice for a good meal with friends where I could sip a Cherry Street coconut porter, brewed in Cumming, to pair with Stone’s fare.
Despite what I may have led you to believe, you won’t find Chef Stone preparing anything so shocking as a mortadella macaron, as other sweet/savory chefs have attempted. Instead, fruit garnishes, salsas and reductions are incorporated repeatedly throughout the menu. Just reading the list of options with these nectarous pops of contrast whets my appetite. But those of you who are wary of sweet meat in the way of say, fruit-stuffed pork tenderloin, let me reassure you that you’ll find no such dish here. Nope, here it’s a more updated fruity take, and most dishes are well-balanced.
Take the fat meatballs draped in a tangle of powerfully pickled zucchini strips. The dense orbs benefit from sucking the moisture and flavor from the burst of dark blackberry barbecue sauce that packs a one-two, sweet-tangy punch.
Bits of dried fruit tucked into the salads give them added pep. For example, in the kale and Brussels sprouts salad, dried cranberries balance the cabbage-y bitterness of the shaved, raw sprouts and the greenness of the kale dressed in a zinger of a lemon-Dijon vinaigrette. I dig the dried-fruit bling.
Fruit salsas, formerly peach and now orange as the season transitions, garnish dishes like the salmon latkes. House-smoked salmon, chilled and crumbled, adorns thin, spiraled latke crisps. Orange nips, onion and that creamy lemon-Dijon play well with the delicate cedar-planked salmon, even if the potato-chip-like base is the star of the dish.
The same salsa dresses the red snapper, one of my favorite entrees at South Main Kitchen. The fruit plus a tiny twirl of blood orange sauce makes a nice contrast to the well-salted, expertly crisped skin. Score another for the baker-chef.
While that blood orange sauce worked so well on the snapper, it did stray into the no-go Candyland on the scallops, where it served as a glaze spiked with undetectable chipotles. Perhaps a little more heat and a pairing other than the sweet-scented carrot puree might rescue the dish from King Candy.
Not all dishes at South Main Kitchen bear Stone’s hallmark sweet-savory touch. It’s decidedly absent (thankfully) in her signature cauliflower soup. The surprisingly mild but creamy buttermilk-enriched potage steeped with bacon comes garnished instead with a spiral of basil oil and cumin-spiced almonds. It’s creamy and rich, but missing something to stay the monotony. Not fruit, mind you.
The Springer Mountain chicken entree could also use a little boost. Though well cooked, the dish in its entirety could benefit from something to complement or minimally mask the musk of the buckwheat groats with trace amounts of mint dressing and lemon oil. A little vinegary compote could actually work wonders here.
I predict that we’ll continue to see the restaurant scene come alive in downtown historic Alpharetta. The locals are already sweet on South Main Kitchen. As they should be.
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