Chef Zeb Stevenson has been cooking long enough not to take things too seriously anymore.
At his newly opened Redbird in West Midtown, you’ll find “expensive olive oil” circling a plate of cacio e pepe fritters. Skin-on, pan-roasted steelhead trout is decorated with a “sizzling scallion condiment,” a hot trick with herbs gleaned from tutelage under Jean-Georges. Lightly pickled, chilled mussels come clean and bright in a sardine can with a glass dropper vial of hot sauce.
Playful menu descriptions and dish presentations such as these reinforce a penchant toward keeping things real, or, as Stevenson and his business partner Ross Jones like to call it, “free-spirited.” It’s the kind of spirit acquired after decades of dedicating oneself to a career. (He’s been part of the Atlanta restaurant scene since 2001; she founded pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Watershed in Decatur back in 1998.) The two paired up at Watershed on Peachtree when Stevenson became exec chef there in 2015. When Jones sold the restaurant last year, this Redbird venture — and a couple of aha happenstance moments with chirping backyard cardinals — called their names.
Located in the Westside Provisions District spot formerly occupied by Bacchanalia, Redbird taps into the food-with-integrity spirit of its storied, fine dining precursor, but it brings with it a new aura. Gone are dark recesses and dim lighting. Formality has been replaced with all things casual; an open floor plan and expansive windows offer a view of the Midtown skyline. Complementing this airy, contemporary space is an informal, globally influenced menu that invites mixing and matching.
An open kitchen remains, yet it’s no longer just a performance stage. Counter seating brings guests in direct contact with the Redbird culinary crew. More than anything else, it is this genuine desire to mingle with guests — Stevenson and Jones both walk the floor — that makes Redbird a homey place to nest.
Every time I nested at Redbird, I started with Crispy Eggplant. Don’t pass up on these hefty rectangles that you must swipe into a thick aioli scented with thyme and honey. The dish is as indulgent as a plate of fries.
The upper portion of the menu includes other nibbles and snacks. Cacio e pepe fritters come with a nice bite of cracked black pepper that marries well with dabs of sweet pepper jelly and that quaffable, “expensive olive oil” from Abruzzo in central Italy.
You can easily make a meal out of apps here. Order mussels en escabeche in the tin can that come with a stack of sturdy house-made potato chips and playfully bottled hot sauce. Add chicken liver pate that’s smooth and spreadable like Braunschweiger on thick slices of grilled black bread (disregard the drab-looking fruit mustard). Grilled okra bathing in a white pool of buttermilk is just one of a number of simple, yet satisfying, vegetarian options.
Pair these with one of the bird-themed drinks from the bar. Cocktails are variations on classics. The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, served in a Champagne flute, is a lighter take on a Negroni. Better this time of year is the Jinx Bird, a tummy-warming Old Fashioned. The wine list is Jones’ project, an approachable, crowd-pleasing one-pager featuring family-owned and small artisan wineries, mainly from Europe and California.
To me, apps and a drink are where Redbird sings its best song. If you want heftier fare, Redbird offers a la carte proteins, like slow-roasted chicken legs. They are juicy on their own. Swipe the bites into toum, a Lebanese garlic sauce akin to aioli, for more of a swoon.
If an 8-ounce butcher’s steak hadn’t been sliced prior to serving, maybe it would have retained some heat. As it was, the meat was barely warm — but also tough and chewy. A server praised the 14-ounce duck breast for its crispy exterior. What arrived not only lacked crispiness, but, like the steak, should have arrived hotter. It’s also questionable whether those six duck slices really equate to a two-person entree as advertised.
Redbird’s mix-and-match notion sounds great in theory. In reality, it would be helpful if servers offered pairing recommendations. For example, the spaetzle, a surprisingly successful combination with feta, pickled chanterelle mushrooms and corn kernels, would be a fine coupling for the chicken; the duck would be a good match for the smashed fingerling potatoes treated like fried plantains for tostones (avoid the almond mole that lacks complexity).
This is less an issue during lunch, whose menu includes a handful of entrees already paired with a side to form a complete meal. A grilled fontina cheese sandwich with thick tomato soup hit the spot on a recent rainy day; a dry-aged cheeseburger didn’t, but the accompanying fries were addictive. A fillet of mildly sweet blackened redfish was sensational on its own, but not as part of a disjointed arugula salad with citrus wedges, avocado dressing and crispy grains of puffed rice.
When Redbird was first announced last December, Stevenson proudly told me that he is one of the few chefs who makes his own desserts. He should be proud of an airy, flourless chocolate ganache cake. His eggless Sugar Cream Pie (think: dense and sweet like Pecan Pie, but sans pecans) is not just some dutiful nod to his mother, although she’s noted on the menu, yet also a wink to his home state of Indiana. Crushed Pecan Ice might be among the busiest of Redbird dishes, yet this rendition of Filipino halo halo is a tasty culmination of a mix-and-match philosophy, with cooling pecan granita topped with pomegranate seeds, diced mango, tapioca balls, fresh coconut shavings and mint leaves.
Halo halo translates to “mix, mix.” It’s apropos at a place like Redbird, where Stevenson and Jones are stirring up the dining scene. They’ve removed the pretension and stuffy air that can surround fine dining and injected a dose of fresh fun into the equation. The result is a casual place where its owners are at ease to mix and mingle while guests get whatever mix-and-match food experience suits the mood.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: ingredient-driven New American without pretension
Service: friendly, attentive yet relaxed
Best dishes: Crispy Eggplant. Cacio e Pepe Fritters. Spaetzle. Slow-roasted Chicken Legs. Sugar Cream Pie. Crushed Pecan Ice.
Vegetarian selections: BBQ Spiced Almonds. Roasted Beets. Garden Greens. Kale Salad. Grilled Summer Squash. Crispy Eggplant. Pretzel Focaccia. Red Peas Baked in Apple Cider. Spaetzle. Cacio e Pepe Fritters. Grilled Okra. Mushrooms and Swiss Chard.
Price range: $$$-$$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; Brunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: free lot parking and nearby parking deck; gratuity-based valet service weekend evenings
MARTA station: Midtown
Reservations: recommended for dinner
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: average in dining room, above average on terrace
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-900-5172
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