Perhaps only Maricela Vega, the new executive chef at 8Arm, would look at a harvest of ghostly green strawberries with the promise of pink in their future and think: shrimp. She tells me that's how her green-strawberry aguachile, an exhilarating study of acid and heat, was born: green fruit shocked in a velvety sauce that tastes of funky, smoky, fermented morita chiles, nestled in a bowl with bamboo, squash and crunchy, neutralizing kohlrabi.
This magical composition is emblematic of the sort of vegetable-forward cuisine this daughter of immigrants from the Guanajuato region of Mexico has been cooking during her three months at 8Arm.
After working in Atlanta restaurants (including a formative stint with chef Joshua Hopkins at Empire State South, during which she built bridges with local farmers), and after earning a cult following with her handcrafted tamales and modern Mexican pop-up dinners, this socially conscious poet of masa and plant material has found a home that perfectly suits her.
Vega is a bright young star who brings new light and sparkle to 8Arm, the Ponce de Leon restaurant founded in 2016 by Angus Brown (who died in 2017) and his chef-partner, Nhan Le, in a quirky little cottage that once served as a dog-training academy.
Based on my recent 8Arm experiences, I hope to goodness this 30-year-old darling of social media and Atlanta’s underground dining scene will stick around for many seasons to come. I’m wildly impressed and ravenous for more of her food, which feels born out of creative spontaneity and an abiding respect for local ingredients.
Lately, that’s meant snappy broccoli gazpacho with lemon, mint and kohlrabi matchsticks. Zephyr zucchini bruschetta on Root Baking Co. bread with a smear of pink-lady-pea hummus, cabbage, droplets of bright-green pistou, spearmint or apple mint. Or spring-pea ravioli with a luscious brown-butter sauce with the zing of sorrel.
The majority of Vega’s food is vegetarian. A good bit of it is vegan. Some (not all) of it is a tribute to her Mexican ancestry. All of it is delicious.
I suspect that you’ll always be able to find some kind of grain bowl, a cheese board, and various things on bread here. This healthy, elemental, thoughtfully structured style of eating has always been at the core of 8Arm. Vega adds an aura of magic and mystery.
Whether brunch or dinner, don’t sleep on the Carolina Gold rice bowl with a five-minute egg and heaps of this and that (tomato, cabbage, kale, alliums, pumpkin seed, cashews, lemon balm and chile oil, to name a few recent components). Mix it all together. Eat it with a big spoon. Hear your taste buds sing.
As much as I loved the flower-strewn squash bruschetta at dinner, a brunch offering of mushroom toast with purple kale, pink-lady-pea hummus and bronze fennel didn’t register so sharply. Much better that day was a mollete (open-face sandwich) with pork carnitas, black beans, purple napa, hot sauce, creme fraiche, chimichurri and a sunny side egg. Quite a hearty way to begin the day. And the peach pancake with almond brittle and marigold-maple syrup warmed us up like the sun.
Joshua Fryer, general manager and beverage director of both 8Arm and its speakeasy-like upstairs lair, Ink, has put together a winning wine list (with a focus on natural wines) and a handful of frequently changing cocktails, both classic and novel. (When’s the last time you sipped a Rusty Nail or a Tom Collins?) I liked the Nascar (tequila, soda, grapefruit bitters) at brunch much better than the Rosita at dinner. Concocted of reposado tequila, dry and sweet vermouth, the red aperitivo Tuve, and bitters, the Rosita was so potent and sweet that my date ditched it for red wine.
You can also have fun exploring some eight different pours of vermouth, from pricey Matthiasson (sweet and evocative) to Otto’s, from Greece. (Not sure why the server suggested the fruity Otto’s when I requested something dry; not sorry I tried it, though.)
Service can be by turns lovely, and distant. Guests are encouraged to share everything at dinner; the menu specifies that the food will arrive in no particular order, when it’s ready. That works if you’re famished. And yet often, particularly with cuisine this exceptional, I want a coursed affair rather than a table suddenly crowded with plates. Note to management: Maybe consider pacing the meal, or at least asking the table’s preference.
A few more quibbles: You may find that the pink lady peas with the molasses pork shoulder taste like the pink lady peas on the bruschetta. (Servers don’t seem inclined to mention that you may be setting yourself up for a flavor repeat, so take time to read the fine print.) Incidentally, that pork shoulder, with snow peas and peach, was the least interesting of the five savory plates we tried on our first visit. That’s less a comment on the meat than a tribute to Vega’s vegetable shamanism.
Still, the kitchen should take care not to rush the tomato season. A carpaccio of sliced tomatoes was ever so slightly green tasting. A slick of tahini-like cashew cream under the fruit helped coax out some flavor, though a bit of salt and oil might have drawn out more. The corona of raw beets, kohlrabi, lemon balm was certainly pretty, though.
Thanks to Vega, we’ve enjoyed the glories of a spring unlike any other. Now that the alliums, the cruciferous and root veggies are fading from sight, the promise of corn, okra, cucumbers, melons, berries and figs beckons. If Vega has her way, it’s going to be a spectacular summer at 8Arm.
If we are lucky, maybe she’ll even make us some of her famous tamales.
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: contemporary, vegetable-driven, sometimes Mexican-influenced cuisine from chef Maricela Vega, who also makes handcrafted tamales and runs a modern-Mexican pop-up, both under the name Chicomecóatl
Service: unfocused at dinner; sweet and free-spirited at brunch
Best dishes: Brunch: Gold Rice D-Lite with a poached egg. Broccoli gazpacho. Pork carnitas mollete. Peach pancake. Dinner: Zephyr zucchini bruschetta. Green-strawberry aguachile. Chicharron guisado. Spring-pea ravioli.
Vegetarian selections: The food is mostly vegetarian; options change frequently.
Price range: $$$ (service included in prices)
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 6-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Late-night menu: 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Children: welcome before 10 p.m.; 21 and older afterward
Parking: free parking in front, behind the building and on the street
MARTA station: North Avenue or Midtown
Reservations: accepted for dinner only in main dining room
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Patio: yes, a lovely one, with a bar
Takeout: typically no
Address, phone: 710 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta. 470-875-5856
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