There is nothing better on the menu at the Alden than the rack of lamb. The other night, as I sat eating it in full view of the open kitchen, I had to close my eyes just to contain my feelings. To borrow a line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways.
To begin, the lamb is sourced from Border Springs Farm, largely regarded as one of the best sheep farms in the country, and the four-bone rack has been frenched and trimmed so that just the right amount of fat remains, not 1 millimeter more. In the hands of chef Jared Hucks, it is cooked gently so that not even 1 ounce of the exterior has seized up into toughness. From the thick, browned edge to the thin, white bone, each bite is luscious, tender, melting, grassy and meaty. This is lamb as it should be.
On the plate, there is a rich pool of jus, a few bright-yellow sweet smears of carrot puree, figs halved and charred, tiny eggplant quartered and seared, and a handful of whole mint leaves scattered to deliver the final, herby note. When the server delivered this dish to our table and I began to take a photo with my phone for notes, Hucks walked over out of the kitchen and, without saying a word, rotated the plate in front of me 180 degrees. Such is the care and attention to detail Hucks has lavished on this dish. He is even aware of the angle at which this lamb is best observed.
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Though he is an Atlanta native, Hucks has spent the past couple of decades accumulating a resume that any cook might envy: at Noma in Denmark, Arzak in Spain, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, a restaurant group in Thailand, and so on. This bevy of experience has made him a fastidious chef. One may merely glance at the open kitchen he runs to observe that. It is a decidedly small team of cooks who keep their heads down, voices low, and movements calm and deliberate. On the evenings I’ve observed it, I have never seen so much as a pan out of place. This is the quiet dance of a truly focused and ambitious team. Hucks is always there, at least every night I’ve been there, his hands on every single plate.
I wish I could say that every one of those plates is as good as the lamb. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The Alden is a restaurant reaching for true greatness and coming up a little short.
Let’s get the unpleasantness out of the way. The room is uninspiring, a bland strip-mall rendition of vaguely fancy, and the service is still working out basic kinks, like how to course out an order of appetizers too large for a two top. The intention to be a more casual version of a fine restaurant is clear — I loved hearing the Buzzcocks and Roy Orbison piping through the speakers — but exactly how casual seems undecided or unclear.
The house cocktails are just OK. A rye and rum concoction called Red Rum is too heavy on the syrupy Grand Marnier. A combo of mezcal, gin and crème de violette is watery and bland. The selection of wines by the glass is much better, including the excellent COS Nero di Lupo, but you may have the misfortune of being served room temperature gruner veltliner, as I was one night.
And the menu includes some unfortunate missteps. An appetizer described on the menu as “The Pan Asian Egg” arrives at the table looking like a floral arrangement from a Pacific island. A baby head of bok choy spreads its leaves. Shards of yellow rice crackers stand on end. The server will instruct you to break the egg and stir it into the creamy sauce pooled at the bottom. At which point, the whole thing will wilt into a goopy, sloppy mess of overcooked greens and soupy sauce. I struggled to find any pleasure in loading up bites of this on the rice crackers.
The harissa shrimp and grits is a similarly busy dish. There are thick, cheesy grits, dabs of dark green chermoula, an almost-black sweet sauce, battered and fried slivers of okra, shrimp cooked to a crisp, and, I almost forgot, a pile of meaty collards hiding in the center of the plate. Each element by itself was more than passable, but the black, syrupy sauce, which rings the dish in thick circles, obscured the more delicate flavors of the chermoula and the shrimp.
The menu here is at its best when it is focused on the qualities of a noteworthy ingredient. The menu sets its sights on not so much precisely local fare as a selection of impressive ingredients from along the East Coast. A steamed bowl of Bangs Island mussels were remarkable specimens, meaty and clean in flavor. They’re served in a rather unusual coconut lemongrass broth (not unlike a very rich Thai tom kha soup) that multiplies the richness of the shellfish. It is a fine dish.
Of course, that is not to say Hucks doesn’t source some great local ingredients. One night, I was served a plate of blackened red snapper, a thick fillet cooked to a lovely dark crisp. What really stole the show, though, were the slices of lightly caramelized Georgia peaches. Sweet, rich and tender, these beautiful bites were the last gasp of the season, and I felt lucky to eat them. They have since disappeared from the menu.
I was similarly happy to find a pile of scuppernong muscadines on the bread plate one night. Muscadine grapes, one of the great, fascinating fruits grown in this state, never seem to get any respect. Here, the kitchen had taken the care to slice and seed them and toss them in a light vinaigrette, so that one could marvel at the complex textures and flavors. It was a nice touch.
Even better is what arrives with the coulotte steak. The meat is tender, rosy and sliced into a stack of shingles. That combo of rich jus and sweet carrot puree that also accompanies the lamb is drizzled and dabbed on the plate. The real stunner, though, is a dollop of black onion jam so powerfully condensed I am tempted to call it weapons-grade material. The rest of the accouterments — summer squash, a few leaves of arugula, fancy cubed red wine jelly — fade in the background when in the presence of that stuff.
If you are fond of such culinary touches, I’d say take a visit to the Alden and keep an eye on Jared Hucks. Even if he doesn’t always reach them, he is a chef capable of great heights.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: New American
Service: casual and uneven
Best dishes: rack of lamb, coulotte steak, steamed mussels, house bread
Vegetarian selections: few options
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Parking: lot parking
MARTA station: Chamblee Station
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: 5070 Peachtree Blvd., Chamblee. 678-395-6982