Richard Blais is a very busy man. He speaks rapid-fire over the phone, and moves from one subject to another without prompting, admitting to having had several cups of coffee.
From the kitchen of newly christened Home, Tom Catherall's new incarnation of what was Posh, housed in Seeger's former location, Blais talks about his Top Chef fame, his insane schedule, the menu at this, his latest in a long line of whacky culinary ventures, and his one-month-old baby girl.
If you entered this tale somewhere around the first episode of last season's Top Chef, in which Blais was a finalist, you're behind. And to understand how a gastro-guru chef like Blais could end up cooking for a restaurateur like Catherall in a fine dining concept based on the farm-to-table precept you'll need a refresher.
A self-made chef, Catherall is known for opening venues that cater to crowd mentality, and for cashing in on the popularity while it lasts. He once told me "restaurants aren't successful because of reviews — they are successful because people enjoy what they eat and want to come back. They are successful because there is an [posterior] in every seat." Twist, Shout, Prime, Strip, Noche and Lola are all part of his Here to Serve restaurant group where pretty posteriors pony up to the bar before moving on to the next big thing.
Home is no different. Sensing an impending crash in the economy while watching Posh's sales dip, Catherall did what any smart business man would do: he cashed in on the enormous popularity of a trendy concept – the farm-to-table philosophy of cooking locally and sustainably – and changed Posh's venue to the New South and its name to Home. Then he hired a very controversial and talented chef, Blais, to helm the kitchen, riding Blais' coat tails of Top Chef fame all the way to the bank.
Nevermind that neither of these culinarians has ever positioned themselves as sustainably aware or locally minded, a valid culinary cause as much as it is a passing trend. While the rest of fine dining in Atlanta withers and chokes, Home is catering to an over-booked dining room nearly every night. And Blais, a creative tour de force famous for his molecular machinations involving liquid nitrogen and immersion circulators, has finally found an audience. The truth about Atlanta's love/hate relationship with Blais can't be found in foie gras milk shakes and failed restaurants (Blais in 2004 and Element in 2007), or even in his obvious talents on Top Chef. Blais' issues with the Atlanta dining public has been that he can't seem to stay put.
At Home he's been given parameters, similar to his success at One Midtown Kitchen a few years back. Placing his creativity in a loosely bound box provides Blais with much-needed focus. And Catherall seems willing to let him call the shots, at least in the kitchen.
So while the bloggers and fans shout sell out, Blais is cooking some of the best meals of his life: Home's menu is a solid mix of Southern favorites, updated as only Blais can update – fried green tomatoes cut vertically instead of horizontally (think thick-cut fries), served with a cucumber-buttermilk ice cream laced with herbs; his signature "oysters and pearls," a fresh serving of oysters with tiny, frozen dots of Tabasco sauce, made possible with liquid nitrogen.
His efforts at Home are more grown up than anything else he's done in Atlanta, a clever mix of recognizable dishes that lean towards the South combined with his goof-ball genius to create a heightened sense of panache.
Nowhere is this more evident than duck eggs (from local Garmon Family Farms) deviled, albeit traditionally with a creamy yolk-and-pickled filling, but topped with everything from sweet-and-salty barbecued duck confit to house-made pimento cheese. Small and tidy, they're served three to an order on Seeger's oversized, gorgeous, bone white china.
Menu change-ups are not unusual, and in the course of several visits an offering of itty bitty buttermilk pancakes with a "butter" of foie gras (like a very buttery tourchon) and blueberries in syrup changed to pan-roasted foie gras with sweetly pickled strawberries and pancakes. The dish is a fun, precocious take on breakfast, and one of Blais' best appetizers.
Pancakes and foie gras are second only to sweetbreads dredged in seasoned flour and eggs, Southern style, then pan-fried in clarified butter, served with a sausage pan gravy like your grandmother used to make. Christened with a crunchy salad of arugula and watercress laced with flavors of ginger, truffle oil and maple, it triumphs in its in-your-face Southern sassiness.
If Blais has an Achilles' heel, it's his over use of the immersion circulator to cook meats sous vide (vacuum sealed and immersed in water to cook at low temperatures for long periods of time). Sous vide is a notorious cooking method used by chefs in the modern kitchen because meats cooked this way have an incredibly velvet-like texture. The problem is that none of the crusty caramelization and maillard browning that takes place from a slow roast in the oven occurs, and often a very nice piece of meat is left flavorless.
Happily, Blais actually roasts beef brisket the old-fashioned way — by seasoning it with mustard and brown sugar, searing it, then wrapping it in foil to braise in the oven at around 200 degrees. The result? A melding of rich, meaty flavor with plush texture, served atop roasted beets and unbelievably creamy potatoes. Pork short ribs over well-seasoned collard greens with a coffee barbecue sauce isn't as weird as it sounds: crowned with juicy roasted peaches, it's one of the best dishes Blais offers.
Desserts are Home's weakest link, made in collaboration with H2S corporate. Blais provides ice creams (frozen with liquid nitrogen, of course) and garnishment. The hands-off approach shows: his Puck-like presence is missing in everything but a playful chocolate "moonpie" served with a scrumptious Coke float.
Catherall and his service staff clearly know when a critic is in the house, and I am no exception— though I doubt the lovely servers who waited on me would have performed in a less-than-stellar fashion for anyone else. Poised, professional and well informed, they made the evening extremely pleasant.
Sell out? Maybe. Seeger's dining room looks the same, except for one thing – it's full of diners. And I'll be the first to admit that Richard Blais and Tom Catherall seem like the Oscar and Felix of Atlanta's dining scene. But when it works, it works. And it ain't braggin' if you can prove it.
Food: Southern with style
Service: Everyone, from the valet to the bartenders, knew why I was there by the end of several visits. Still, the staff showed professionalism at every level.
Address, telephone: 111 West Paces Ferry Road, 404-869-0777
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, Diners Club
Hours of operation: Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 11 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m.
Vegetarian Dishes: In addition to pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes, there are family style veggie options worth a taste, from crunchy creamed corn to summer squash to cauliflower
Best dishes: Deviled duck eggs, chicken-fried sweetbreads, roasted foie gras, beef brisket, pork short rib, moonpie and Coke float
Children: Doable, but most kids would probably be more comfortable in a less formal setting
Parking: Complimentary valet or on-street parking
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: Patio only
Noise level: High when busy
Web site: www.heretoserverestaurants.com
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