A few Christmases ago, my husband bought me a copy of Marilyn Schwartz’s “A Southern Belle Primer,” to help me better assimilate to life in the South. Let me tell you, I’ve read all 134 pages, but my heart is still getting blessed.
Southern Belle is a culinary tribute to the South from Georgia native Joey Ward, formerly executive chef at Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow.
Ward, along with a culinary team that includes previous Gunshow chef de cuisine Spencer Gomez and pastry chef Billy Cole, offers diners a taste of the new South through a concise menu of innovative shareable plates featuring hyperseasonal ingredients from local farms.
In this retro-chic 45-seat room, marked by powder blue laquered tabletops and power femme tufted chairs, nods are given not only to the region, but also to the Peach State and Atlanta (including a Delta Air Lines service trolley that is wheeled to your table for dessert).
For a theatrical touch, the nonalcoholic Smoke and a Pancake drink, made with black tea, cider, bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, prompts patrons to grab their iPhones and start snapping when the glass cylinder is lifted and a cloud of applewood smoke swirls above the table like cigar haze.
But, Southern Belle is more than smoke, trite tricks or Southern clichés. The approach is fresh and modern.
Here, zero waste is a priority. Crunchy veggie chicharrones are made from vegetable scraps. The gorgeous golden-webbed tuile cracker that rests over a bowl of ceviche is the product of sweet potato oddments. The pumpkin bread uses pumpkin rind in the batter, and every part of the squash — seeds, flesh and rind — has purpose in an addictive agrodolce, a sweet-sour Italian-inspired condiment that you’ll spoon atop the warm bread, along with airy whipped feta cheese.
Drinks are no exception. Sundays, you’ll find no-waste mimosas featuring a Five Alive-inspired syrup, made from the citrus peels accumulated during the week.
Perhaps cocktails as creative as those at Southern Belle shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering the menu was designed by Greg Best and Paul Calvert of Ticonderoga Club. Five house cocktails manage to cover each base spirit, as well as Southern distillers. (The tart Long Way Down will stimulate your palate. Now Starring, a Negroni riff starring tequila, would be my recommendation if you seek potency.) Among the trio of classics, the Vieux Carre was exceptionally well-executed. And, that zero-proof Smoke and a Pancake has so much depth that you don’t miss the booze.
By-the-glass and bottle lists by Cate Hatch, sommelier and former director of operations for Linton Hopkins’ Resurgens Hospitality Group, bring delicious European labels at fair prices.
However, while the bar at Southern Belle is a focal point, it does not offer seating. If you generally like to sit at the bar, your next best option is the soft lounge arrangement nearest the barkeeps.
The best way to enjoy Southern Belle is to come with other belles and boys. A party of four is ideal. With a mere 12 dishes on the menu, just order the whole thing and leave nearly seamless coursing to an adept front-of-house staff. Dishes run $9-$28, but, when divvied up among four diners, it comes out to $43 a head, before tax, tip and booze. And, considering that Southern Belle is the no-reservations big sister to Georgia Boy, Ward’s pricier reservations-only tasting menu spot in the back, it’s a fine deal.
Dinner will start with those yummy veggie chicharrones mixed in with ones made from pork, beef and chicken, and served with shakers of Tajin-ranch (that I plan to re-create at home and use on popcorn) and barbecue cheddar spice seasonings.
It’ll continue with a frizzly frisee salad, studded with blue cheese and lardons and tossed in a warm mustard vinaigrette.
Peruvian-style ceviche, featuring flounder and diced local sweet potato, gets cheffy treatment, with avocado spheres, red onion, wisps of greenery and that repurposed sweet potato tuile. Less convincing to my palate was a tableside pour of leche de tigre, made from coconut milk. I yearned to lap up the spicy citrus liquid traditionally used to cure the fish.
The Blue Crab Beau Monde at Southern Belle did not disappoint. The cheeky name references the herb-and-garlic seasoning salt popular in the 1950s. The shredded crab and celeriac mix comes with ample grit bread — and house-made benne crackers, too, although the latter proved to be too delicate to actually support any seafood.
Szechuan sweet potatoes are one of the few dishes that are vegetarian as-is (although plenty of menu items can be made vegetarian or vegan upon request), but likely will please only those who can handle fiery hot food. Vietnamese grilled pork belly was a far more successful Asian-inflected plate. An homage to Buford Highway, and the heftiest entrée on the menu, it’s an interactive platter, with ample grilled pork, ramekins of pickles, nuoc cham dipping sauce, fried shallots — and a mini squeeze bottle filled with Kewpie mayo, to squirt onto sturdy romaine leaves, into which you can stuff the dish.
Whereas Ward has found creative outlets for a no-waste kitchen, dessert is how he takes pressure off the kitchen. Southern Belle is one of the few places I’ve found where a single dessert suffices as a final course. Using a stand mixer, your server will churn out ice cream flavored with Delta’s signature biscoff cookie. Billows of smoke will rise when liquid nitrogen gets added, eliciting oohs and aahs. That ice cream, made in front of your widened eyes, and served over warm, sticky toffee-coffee pudding, perfectly embodies Atlanta, home to the world’s busiest airport. And, I will arm-wrestle you if you don’t agree that biscoff cookies are the best in-flight snack, ever.
Oops. That wouldn’t be very Southern belle of me.
“There is no crash course that teaches you how to be a Southern belle,” Schwartz writes in her sassy little book. But, if you want a gastronomic crash course on the modern American South, Southern Belle is as good as it gets.
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: new Southern
Service: exceptional, delivered by seasoned hospitality pros
Setting: retro-chic hip
Best dishes: Crispy Chicharrones From the Farm, Ceviche Like in Peru, Salad of Local Frisee, Warm Pumpkin Bread, Blue Crab Beau Monde, Warm Sticky Toffee-Coffee Pudding.
Vegetarian selections: Warm Pumpkin Bread, Szechuan Sweet Potatoes, Sunchoke Risotto, Warm Sticky Toffee-Coffee Pudding. Vegetarian upon request: Crispy Chicharrones From the Farm, Salad of Local Frisee, Crispy Brussels Sprouts.
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Wednesdays-Saturdays; noon-7 p.m. Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: free lot
MARTA station: North Avenue
Reservations: not accepted
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low
Address, phone: 1043 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta, 404-698-3961
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