It was a thrill to write about Twain’s back in 2015. Not only was it one of the first restaurants I reviewed for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it also felt like a discovery. The Decatur pub had been around for ages but had hired the witty and winning young chef Savannah Haseler (now Sasser). Sasser crafted a menu that respected the billiard hall’s pubbiness, but she also got a little fancy, dressing up proteins such as grilled shrimp with accouterments like herb farrotto, smoked corn vinaigrette and house-made chorizo.
I wondered how long Twain’s — which remained a proudly grungy dining space — would be able to hang on to Sasser.
Less than two years, as it turns out. A few months ago, she defected to Hampton + Hudson, a move that seems perfect. This is a place, after all, that’s clearly comfortable in its posh skin. It’s ensconced in the Inman Park courtyard between MF Sushi and Bread & Butterfly, and its look is very, very designed — one small dining room is all Cool Granny with cozy wallpaper and velvet booths; the next is Mod Farmhouse with orange vinyl bar stools, spring-green barn lights and wood plank walls.
But there are also a foosball table, TV screens full of sports and MTV, and a garage door that makes for a seamless transition to a breezy patio.
So now that Sasser seems more in her element — in a place where dishes like avocado toast with compressed cucumber or charred octopus on green garlic grits feel right at home next to hot chicken, “Nachos libre” and burgers — how’s the grub?
It’s surprisingly mixed, especially given the higher bar that comes with charging $14 for a burger and $10 for a trio of hush puppies.
Let’s start with those pups, which I ordered because they’re vegan, which is a Sasser signature. Plus how can you go wrong combining fried cornbread and smoked cauliflower?
Turns out, pretty wrong. Mealy and mushy, the fritters were served with “fried smoked cauliflower” that barely seemed salted, much less infused with the flavors of smoke or the crisp of the fryer. A smear of Sriracha aioli quadrupled the edibility of this dish, which is to say, it needed saving.
Happily, nothing else on the table so drastically needed a life preserver — but several dishes could have used a little more life, period. Take the sweet-tea-brined chicken wings made with a cola glaze and “spicy peanuts.” That the sticky coating was a bit cloying wasn’t a surprise. That the spicy peanuts were mushy and not at all spicy was. And the chicken itself? It was juicy and flavorful but seriously dampened by flabby skin.
There was a heaviness, too, to the pasta of the day, a pappardelle with broccoli, sunflower seeds and kale pesto. Not only were the wide ribbons way too thick and chewy, they were fused into a doughy wad. An oozy sunny egg and the oil-rich kale pesto couldn’t manage to unclump the pasta nor did they add much flavor. I found myself straining for salt or just a whiff of garlic.
But let’s get on to the happier news — the dishes both creative (as those above certainly were) and delicious. That charred octopus small plate tops this list. A swath of wonderfully corny grits (creamily addictive even if I could barely taste the garlic in them) was dotted with slices of exquisitely tender octopus, a few olives and a couple of twists of lemon. The acid tartness of the lemon and olives beautifully balanced the rich sweetness of the octopus and grits. It was a dish both fun and fascinating.
And I finally got a great hit of garlic in a plate of bangers and mash, particularly in the wilted greens nested beneath a couple of links of duck sausage. The flavorful veg, which included a sweet-sharp Vidalia vinaigrette, was a fun foil for the fat, crisp-edged pillows of gnocchi that stood in for the “mash.” With all those big flavors going on, I barely cared that the sausage centerpiece was a little funky and a lot blah. (Well, at $21 for the plate, I cared a little bit.)
And then, of course, there was the burger. There are two on the menu, the Chevy Chase with Russian dressing and beer pickles and the Bee’s Knees, which I chose for its smoked pimento cheese and thick but crisp house-made bacon. The sandwich was a well-melded and delectable handful of char and smoke, of sweetness and spice, of gamy, meaty juiciness and a hint of brightness from pickled green chutney. With it came airy, super-crisp and very salty fries and a wonderfully light, mustard seed-flecked slaw. This dish was perfect. It was the reason we ordered IPAs instead of cocktails. It was also the reason that, the next time I go to Hampton + Hudson, I’ll probably order more items from the pubby end of the menu.
And that’s the takeaway: Despite more than a couple of falters, I want to go back to Hampton + Hudson. There’s a happy, vivacious vibe here and a surplus of personality on the menu. Of all the dishes we tasted, only one item felt passionless — a “cobbler” that was actually a hunk of dry cornbread tossed with undoctored berries and an anemic scooplet of buttermilk ice cream.
Mostly, Sasser stretches for greatness, and even when she misses the mark, it’s exciting to behold.
There’s another reason I chose to review Hampton + Hudson this week. It seemed a perfect bookend for my time at the AJC. This will be my last review before I move on to focus on other endeavors. I hate to leave our dining team and I’ll also miss writing about chefs like Sasser, who craft their menus with both reverence and wit; who take their food very seriously, but not so much that they forget to have fun with it; who’ve been a joy for me to witness.