Good old New American at Paper Mill

About halfway through my first meal at Paper Mill Grill, I leaned back and surveyed the plates on the table.

We had two salads, one with kale and beets and the other with watermelon and salty cheese. There was an appetizer of smoked trout. The kid had a single-stack cheeseburger with a side of fries. In a little while, we’d have plates of chicken potpie and a grilled pork chop.

I found myself surprised about all of this, mostly because I was enjoying myself. Like, really enjoying myself.

I must confess a bit of cynicism here. The menu served at Paper Mill Grill is a textbook version of what we food people call New American. The whole idea behind that cuisine is to take old, familiar dishes, like chicken potpie, and breathe new life into them with, say, a more elevated cooking technique, a better ingredient or a foreign flavor or two.

The trouble with New American is that the idea has become so ingrained, the reinvented dishes so commonplace, that kitchens have started to take them for granted all over again.

When I read a menu like this, I can almost hear the line cooks whine, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, another salad with beets and nuts. Another chicken potpie.” The kitchen is bored with the formula, it doesn’t put in the extra effort, and the diner is stuck with the same uninspired dish that existed to begin with. The food world is a vicious cycle.

My cynicism about Paper Mill Grill’s textbook New American menu was completely wrong. It was sometime between my fifth or 15th bite of watermelon salad that I remembered pairing sweet watermelon with salty crumbles of cheese is, in fact, a great idea, not a boring one, especially when the dish brings in mint, lime, onions and tomatoes to round out layer after layer of flavor.

And that kale salad with the beets and almonds? The mustardy vinaigrette was creamy and the kale was tender; it felt like a pleasure, rather than the punishment of many kale salads.

The stunner for this meal was the aforementioned potpie, specifically the puff pastry. This wasn’t your typical, biscuit-cutter round of golden pastry; this was a 6-inch wide, 4- or 5-inch tall monument of crispy, buttery golden brown goodness floating atop a creamy, rich but simple bowl of chicken and potatoes.

I mean, there wasn’t a square centimeter of this pastry that wasn’t perfectly crunchy. And it was so light and airy you would have thought they used a bicycle pump to fluff it up. To be clear, none of this is world-changing, but it is the kind of cooking that New American is supposed to be about.

The pork chop was a pleasure, too. It came with a big smear of peach chutney, which was nice but a tad too sweet for my taste. More importantly, the chop arrived thick, tender and juicy, served bone-on and cooked only a touch too long. I remember this chop, because I used to eat it at Leon’s Full Service when chef Eric Ottensmeyer was leading the kitchen. Paper Mill Grill quietly closed last year and reopened this year with Ottensmeyer at the helm.

Leon’s built a large and devoted following during the years that Ottensmeyer cooked there, but his food was often overshadowed by Miles Macquarrie’s incredible cocktail program. (Macquarrie now makes drinks at Kimball House.) To be fair, that was very tough competition.

At Paper Mill, Ottensmeyer is in no danger of being overshadowed by the bar, which serves a respectable list of local brews and good wine, but still could use some refinement in the cocktail department. If you’re going to charge $12 for a negroni, served here with a touch of Cynar, you probably should be sophisticated enough not to pack the glass full with little ice cubes that’ll water down the drink.

There are other quibbles. The popover served with the smoked trout would’ve been a nicer touch if it hadn’t gone cold and chewy. The service was sometimes flawless, sometimes the kind that requires a prayer for a water refill.

But the positives far outweighed any of that. At dinner, the server started us off with a little complimentary basket of saltines, drenched in butter and warmed in the oven. Even our kid’s cheeseburger was perfectly prepared, a soft, cheesy, meaty sandwich that would please picky 12-year-olds and cynical food critics alike.

This is a rather large restaurant, with a proper dining room, an expansive deck, a bar and a sitting room with a television and fireplace where you could throw back beers and watch a game. The best seat in the house is out on that deck, facing a little man-made pond that’s lined with pine trees.

That’s where I sat recently, having a lovely lunch of fried calamari and pan-seared trout. The calamari had the kind of light, golden cornmeal crust that shatters into pleasantly crunchy bits when you bite in, and the squid was as tender as could be. I was drinking an IPA from Creature Comforts, admiring the pond and thinking, “Yes, this is it — the good old New American.”

Paper Mill Grill

255 Village Parkway, Marietta

2 of 4 stars (very good)

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