1371 Clairmont Road. N.E., Atlanta
Atlanta’s field of upscale beer-cocktail-comfort food joints is crowded. Going to Mason Tavern in greater Decatur made me wonder how any of these eateries can stand out, because this place didn’t.
From its nondescript name to its unfocused menu of bar snacks, burgers and fresh, sunny entrees, Mason is unfortunately forgettable — which is an odd thing to say about a restaurant where friends and I really enjoyed our food.
But, when we arrived one evening at 6:30, prime dining hour for this family-saturated neighborhood, the vast emptiness of the dining space surprised us, giving that squirmy feeling that we were at a party everyone else had passed up. Our server seemed so sleepy that he had to return to our table twice to confirm our drink orders. (The orange-scented Old Fashioned was very good.)
By the time we left our comfortable patio perch around 8 p.m., a few other outdoor tables were occupied. But the interior dining room — dark, sumptuous and rustic — remained completely empty.
Part of this can be attributed to the location. Mason Tavern is tucked away in the shadowy corner of a quirky, nameless restaurant row on Clairmont Avenue. The lineup is filled with suburban stalwarts like Pyng Ho, cult-favorite Community Q BBQ, the dear departed ghost of the relocated Bhojanic, and a rotating roster of failed endeavors.
When you’re thinking, “Hey, let’s go to a sexy spot and stay out late, dropping a hundred bucks on cocktails, steak and pot de crème,” you probably won’t think of this little strip, even though Mason Tavern has all those goods. Conversely, if you want some beer, wings and a game on a flat-screen, you probably won’t feel at home at Mason, though it offers those elements, too.
Co-owner Kabeer Khurana said the tavern is a weeknight hit with nearby families who love the children’s menu and post-dinner paletas. That makes sense, especially when the weather is right for eating on the breezy, casual patio.
Identity questions aside, much of Mason’s food deserves praise, starting with bar bites. The Tavern Burger, for instance, was a very nice, if not mold-breaking, bundle of short rib, brisket and chuck, made especially tasty with Russian dressing, a fluffy, buttered bun and a side of crisp shoestring fries.
The mac-and-cheese was great. I don’t know how chefs Ben Bisch and Ben McCarter made a sauce with truffle oil and four cheeses feel fresh and light, but they did. And the cavatappi twirls were nicely al dente.
Mason serves two kinds of wings: East and West. The Eastern version was sweetly and saltily glazed and dotted with sesame seeds. Had they been more charred and crispy, they would have been great, instead of just good.
The cheddar and corn hushpuppies weren’t really hushpuppies, but rather five breaded and fried cheese balls, prettily queued up in a puddle of sweet red chile jam. A little mushy inside, a little nonsensical and a lot overpriced at $10, they were still savory and fun to eat.
Less fun was the trend-riding hot chicken sandwich. The chicken was dry, but my main beef with the sandwich was its hoity-toity ciabatta. I prefer hot chicken on the cheapest and squishiest white bread available.
But all of Mason’s bar food is a little bit fancy, and its entrees are even more so. They include a grilled butcher steak with a red wine reduction, a beer-brined half-chicken with charred lemon, and linguini with lamb ragu.
We had the small but plump shrimp bathed in a dark and spicy onion-pepper jus. Lined up atop a creamy cloud of rich cheddar grits, they were pretty and delicious.
Two slender, moist-but-crisp-skinned trout fillets were cooked perfectly, if a little underseasoned. And I loved all the diverse textures going on in a Mediterranean dish of smoky, buttery eggplant rounds over a relish of brown lentils, crunchy carrot bits and creamy little daubs of goat cheese. We especially enjoyed this vegetarian dish once we pushed aside the puzzling pile of undressed raw spinach on top, which felt obligatory — like a really big garnish.
Another veggie, charred broccoli and cauliflower, was terribly executed. The large florets were both undercooked and over-singed, and there was no evidence of the crushed red pepper that was supposed to spice this side up.
Some slip-ups are to be expected in a menu that tries to be a little bit of everything. The good news is, much of Mason Tavern’s little-bit-of-everything is yummy to eat and lovely to look at, just like that beautiful, cavernous dining room. If not for Mason’s somewhat nebulous identity and easy-to-overlook location, I could see that empty space filling right up. For the food alone, it deserves to.