Kevin Gillespie’s sense of Southern-ness is a complicated mixture of sweetness, provocation and intelligence. You can detect these attributes in the names he chooses for his restaurants.
When the Atlanta chef opened Gunshow in 2013, he was required to explain, over and over again, that he wasn’t some wild-eyed gun hoarder, just a nostalgic Southern boy who used to love going to firearms exhibitions with his dad. It was something they did together on Sundays, like playing golf or going fishing. Revival, situated in a gracious old house in Decatur since 2015, is his tribute to the kind of family-style Sunday dinners his grandmothers fixed. It’s also a reference to the annual revival meetings where Southern Protestants assemble to jump-start their faith and declare their fervency: Hallelujah and pass the fried chicken.
On the eastern rim of the Atlanta Beltline, Cold Beer is classic Gillespie. The name pays tribute to the chef’s blue-collar roots and his essential dude-ness. Gillespie is peevishly and playfully winking at stereotypes. He’s also exploding expectations of what exactly one will encounter at a place called Cold Beer. A brew joint/sports bar this is not. Anchored in a sleek, sand-colored contemporary space designed by the Atlanta firm ai3, it is a bastion of revelatory modern cocktails and technically accomplished cooking.
Gillespie, a 2009 “Top Chef” fan fave and the public face of a growing restaurant group, entrusts the food and drink program to a dynamic pair: chef de cuisine Brian Baxter and beverage director Mercedes O’Brien. Baxter comes with a notable pedigree: He worked under Sean Brock at McCrady’s in Charleston and Husk Nashville. O’Brien commandeered the dim-sum-style cocktail cart at Gunshow, thereby proving herself to be a mixologist with moxie. Both practitioners are alchemists of smoke, heat and salt. They are also technical wizards, but they mainly want you to have fun.
Often, Baxter toys with iconic American food to create exemplary gastropub noshes. Chicken wings with a sauce that unabashedly mimics Chick-fil-A’s namesake smoky, mayo-and-ketchup-based condiment. A beef tartare, mixed tableside, that riffs on a Reuben (Russian dressing, caraway vinegar). Roasted oysters topped with a slurry of Calabrian chiles and butter, and accompanied by a stack of house-made saltines — this one’s for folks like me, who grew up slurping Gulf Coast bivalves with crackers and hot sauce. All these are mighty delicious and high on my list of current eating obsessions.
To go with the smoked and fried wings, I asked my server to see what beverage O’Brien might suggest. Humbly, the cocktail queen herself brought out Cigar City Brewing’s Maduro, the same Tampa-made brown ale Baxter uses to marinate those heavenly wings. Spot on.
With the oysters, I might slurp down O’Brien’s wildly original Frozen Avocado Margarita, which comes with a wide, painterly swipe of Beautiful Briny Sea’s black Gunpowder salt down the side of the glass. The Sunday afternoon I wandered in, slightly dazed and overheated from a Beltline ramble, this peppery, limey, herby, tequila-based elixir brought me back to life.
Baxter came up with the genius idea of mixing seared scallops with butternut squash and pecan miso — a combination that packs all the warm spice flavors of a Thanksgiving casserole. The dish is a knockout: briny, sweet, funky, nutty. Now, is it a coincidence that O’Brien’s Georgia Sour (concocted with ASW Distillery’s Fiddler bourbon, makrut leaf, apricot, black tea, sherry and urfa) also uses butternut squash as a primary ingredient? Dunno. But I’m not complaining. Hello, fall!
I was pretty smitten with the Asian-style shrimp pancake that comes tucked away under a shower of bitter lettuces, herbs and flowers. To drink, the Pimm’s Cup Via Thailand, made with pandan-infused Pimm’s, peanut-infused sherry, cucumber, tomato and smoked ginger ale, among other ingredients, drank like a smash-up of the classic Pimm’s Cup and a green-papaya salad. Pure bliss.
As pleasing as the food can be, some of it could use some editing.
Baxter, whose predominant influences seem to be Asia and the American South, has a tendency to throw a bunch of strong flavors together and slather everything (chicken, meat, fruits, veggies) with sauces that can obscure the essence of the main component. On two visits, the servers oohed and aahed about the tomato and green plum salad with smoked tofu and shiso. Sounded brilliant. But the smoky tofu and pungent shiso confused my taste buds. No thanks.
Same with the grilled green beans in a curry sauce with a heavy scatter of sliced almonds, also grilled. A play on the Southern green-bean casserole, the dish tasted, to me, more chemical than smoky. The first few bites were intriguing, but soon my palate was engulfed.
As for the meats, I certainly did not mind the lamb ribs, cooked in the style of Owensboro, Kentucky’s famous barbecue mutton and so tender you simply pull the bones from the mini-slab and dig in. (They are served atop a slice of white bread, as you do in the South.) But that sweet heavy sauce was too much of a good thing. Ditto the barbecued beef belly with watermelon hoisin, although the accompaniment of leafy greens and mint with crushed peanuts did help balance the plate.
Octopus fritters, inspired by the classic Japanese bar snack takoyaki, were gummy inside and over-squiggled with smoked Kewpie mayo and tonkatsu sauce. Hard pass. I was left to take comfort, once again, in O’Brien’s handiwork. This time, the Paloma Stirred: a tequila-mezcal Vesper-Paloma riff with hints of grapefruit and droplets of Tajin oil. Swoon.
Service at Cold Beer can range from fawning (I’m 100 percent sure I was recognized on each visit) to frenzied (try getting a drink on the upstairs terrace on a Friday night). At one dinner, I wasn’t quite sure why our server insisted our first bite be the cornmeal cake with soft white cheese and apples. Certainly, it paired nicely with the sparkling pinot we were sipping. But it’s a dessert, and a sweet dish can stymie rather than stoke the appetite. I appreciate the spirit in which the suggestion was offered — but nah.
In sum, Cold Beer is easily the most exciting restaurant on the hyper-developed Beltline. After some consideration, I believe the kitchen deserves two to three stars and the beverage program four. Put them together, and you have a three-star experience, though one that works better for drinks, bites, and ogling pedestrian shenanigans than a thoughtfully coursed and calibrated meal. While Baxter shows considerable promise, O’Brien is in her own orbit.
As for Gillespie, the role of restaurateur and concept developer looks good on him. Just don’t take everything he says at face value. Cold Beer has “hot stuff” written all over it.
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: Contemporary American and fancy bar food. Dishes are designed for pairing with the excellent cocktails and thoughtful craft beer and wine lists.
Service: mostly attentive and engaged in the food and drink program; can be daffy or super-duper sweet
Best dishes: Roasted oysters. Shrimp pancake. Beef tartare. Chicken wings. Seared scallops with butternut squash and pecan miso. Cornmeal cake with fromage blanc and apples. Peach pavlova.
Vegetarian selections: Warm kale salad. Tomato and green plum salad and grilled green beans with curry and almonds can be made vegetarian. Cornmeal cake. Peach pavlova.
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 4-11 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Saturdays; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Sundays.
Children: Feels like a sanctuary for adults, but kids won’t be shooed away.
Parking: street parking along Edgewood Avenue and Airline Street; paid deck at Edge apartments
MARTA station: King Memorial; Inman Park-Reynoldstown
Reservations: recommended, particularly on weekends
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate when busy
Patio: wonderful Beltline-facing patio and rooftop lounge
Takeout: Call-in orders are not accepted, but if patrons have a hankering for food to take home, the kitchen will accommodate.
Address, phone: 670 DeKalb Ave., Suite 101, Atlanta. 404-254-1032
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