Of all things, the carrots are what convinced me that Holmes isn’t mere hype.
This is the second time that I find myself musing about the dish listed straightforwardly on the Holmes menu as Roasted Baby Carrots. The first time was in a story I recently penned about anti-modernist cuisine and an outspoken desire among some Atlanta chefs to highlight simple, traditional cooking. If you missed that, here it is again:
“Everything was treated with such tenderness — from the orange blossom honey glaze to the drizzle of spicy Moroccan chili oil to the careful crisscross arrangement of the root veggies themselves, their intact stems and roots a reminder that real baby carrots aren’t uniformly sized and don’t come from a bag. The orange hue contrasted with the light green disks of finely sliced scallions and the black and white dots of sesame seeds, all resting on a rustic white clay plate. This was edible art. It felt original, and yet wholly familiar and soul satisfying.”
By the time the carrots arrived, a stream of small plates had already flowed onto the lunch table. Pork belly tacos were nothing to rave about. Nor a fried chicken sandwich. Coal Roasted Beets was a bit of a misnomer, as the plate held but a few red beets; instead, it was a delightfully multitextured, multicolored fall salad rounded out with butternut squash, avocado and apples, the last not even mentioned on the menu. The flavors of another salad-ish mélange of grilled plum, ricotta, blood orange and a salty-tangy bacon vinaigrette didn’t harmonize for me, but my dining partners did sing its fruity praises.
Then came the carrots.
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The carrots speak volumes about the capabilities of this kitchen to let glorious ingredients talk for themselves. Executive chef and co-owner Taylor Neary, a Roswell native and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta, leads the culinary crew. Neary has worked in the kitchens at Roux on Canton, Little Alley Steak, Opulent, St. Cecilia and Marcel. At Holmes, situated in a historic house in downtown Alpharetta, he now has a home to call his own.
Since doors unlocked this summer, Neary and his team have been devising an ever-changing lineup (in a span of just six days in early December, the menu had changed four times) of mainly small plates that feature the latest bounty from local farms. It makes sense that so many dishes are vegetable-forward (although you really ought to try the cheeseburger).
On a separate visit, the Sticky Brussels sparked a moment of endearment similar to the carrot infatuation. Every restaurant has some sort of caramelized Brussels sprout as a side on the menu these days. Where many flop by serving soggy renditions, at Holmes, mini cabbages are crisp, with the flavors of Korean barbecue sealed inside and the outer leaves glistening.
Not all dishes are as laudable. Chefs seem to view octopus as another menu-must right now. The tentacles I ate at Holmes were unpalatably charred, the flesh rather rubbery.
Molasses Pork Chop was ordered medium and arrived well done. Twice. Because Neary, who was expediting, noticed that the plate didn’t have enough pork. Unsatisfied, he made the kitchen fire up another one. Considering that this is one of the few menu items at Holmes that is not a small plate, I appreciate the effort to ensure diners get their fair portion. I just wish more attention had been paid to the temperature of the protein.
Pasta is made from scratch at Holmes. You can find better than the pappardelle tossed in Bolognese at other restaurants or maybe in your own home. So go with the vegetarian tortellini. Treat each of the five squares as a one-bite wonder; the little pasta pockets will burst open in your mouth, exploding with the flavors of squash and apple.
The ingredient combination for the tortellini — squash, apple, brown butter — made perfect sense. These are the types of dishes that I will return for. Components in some dishes confused. Why were apples involved in an otherwise terrific osso bucco? Why cancel out the sharp bite of horseradish by turning it into candied threads, then adding it to sweet potatoes, which are, by nature, sweet?
This extends to the bar, too. The majority of mixed drinks are garnished with a gummy bear threaded onto a toothpick that bears a colored skull. I’m confused.
One thing is clear: The kitchen is carrying this place. The front of house has catching up to do.
Service is highly amicable. Energetic might be a better word. Servers are proud to tell you about the hyperlocal sourcing of ingredients. Some produce hails from a farm just a mile up the road. Great! But not so great when you can’t hear the spiel, or the server can’t hear your order because there’s commotion as staff busily rearrange tables and chairs to seat a party of eight.
Floor staff are hardly invisible. Space is so tight that back waiters tend to apologize for invading your personal space when refilling your water glass.
Holmes does not take reservations. I think that is to its detriment. The place is packed on weekends, and there’s a palpable sense that they need to turn tables. On one visit, food arrived before drinks did. It wasn’t because the bar was slow in preparing orders like the Deadpool (recommendable if you like a Negroni) or passable, if juvenile, margarita (Danny Trejo) and pina colada (Tropicolada) riffs served in beer cans. It’s that the plates zoomed out from the kitchen. Pacing can only be described as frenetic. That’s not exactly what you might desire when meeting up for a nice dinner with friends on a Saturday night.
I’d like to come back in a few months to see if pacing has improved, if they’ve figured out how to seat parties of six or more without disrupting other diners, and if they will provide serving spoons for their thoughtful shared plates. I’d also like to see whether this smart kitchen can be content to tone back on some dishes, to keep in step with simplicity instead of forcing an ingredient on a dish just because it is available right now and was grown a mile down the road.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: small plates farm-to-table
Service: friendly and eager but unrefined
Best dishes: Tortellini. Tea Cured Osso Bucco. Cheeseburger. Roasted Baby Carrots. Sticky Brussels.
Vegetarian selections: tortellini, spaghetti and numerous salads and sides
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon-2:30 p.m. Sundays; dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m Sundays
Parking: free street parking
MARTA station: none
Reservations: Not accepted. Parties of eight requested to call prior to visit.
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: can get loud during prime weekend dining hours
Patio: heated porch
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 50 S. Main St., Alpharetta. 678-691-8320