By the time we got to the Expat, it had already been a long, zigzaggy Friday. We’d driven from Atlanta to Franklin County, pigged out on barbecue, then motored south to Athens — stopping to peer into a couple of more restaurants in the name of dining research. We were tired and thirsty but not especially hungry.
Then we took a sip of the Expat’s exquisitely crafted cocktails, watched the afternoon light dance through the windows of this beautiful 1930s bungalow-turned-bistro, ordered a plate of feather-light gougeres, and felt our cares melt. Why rush home for rush hour when we could linger over spring toast and escargot?
And just like that, we fell under the spell of the Expat, the Athens haunt of former Atlantan restaurateurs Jerry and Krista Slater.
If you’re familiar with the Slater name, you probably know that Jerry founded the much-beloved H. Harper Station back when the property was a lovingly restored train depot and cocktail destination. (Today it’s the home of Muchacho and Golden Eagle.) Though H. Harper’s food could never quite match its mixology, it enjoyed a fabled six-year run, integral to the city’s craft-cocktail movement and a precursor to the current Memorial Drive construction boom.
In 2016, the Slaters closed H. Harper and set about carving out a new identify in this progressive University of Georgia town, where chef Hugh Acheson and company cast a formidable shadow. Jerry studied literature in college and has impeccable hospitality credentials (the legendary Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago; the historic Seelbach Hotel in Louisville). Krista is an artist, sommelier and cocktail maven, too. Their vision for the Expat: to create a valentine to the Lost Generation of American writers who fled to Paris in the 1920s, while keeping their own joie de vivre intact.
Open a little more than a year, the Expat is the sleeper hit of the northeast Georgia dining community, proof that hiring executive chef Savannah Sasser might well be the smartest thing the Slaters ever did (after finding each other, of course). In Atlanta, the classically trained Sasser was known as a solid practitioner of the gastropub style (Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards; Hampton + Hudson). In Athens, she has blossomed into a masterful chef who reinterprets the time-honored classics of the French brasserie with modern flair and local luster. That the Slaters are no slouches in the beverage department only seals the deal.
Rarely has a cocktail haunted me like the Madame Sévérine: a Gibson-Vesper hybrid served in an elegant Nick and Nora glass and named for a doomed character from the 2012 James Bond flick “Skyfall.” I’d happily drive to Athens for a tryst with Madame.
If you like gin mixed with bittersweet amaro, a la the Negroni, try the Expat Cocktail. Ruby red and redolent of cherry, it’s made with Junipero gin, the French aperitif Maurin Quina and a hint of Luxardo Maraschino. Bobbing with juniper berries and a bayleaf, Hints & Pinches betters the gin and tonic and pays homage to Southern bon vivant Eugene Walter, who penned a lexicon of herbs and spices with the title “Hints & Pinches.” The Trois iles Punch is a three-rum doozy in a hefty brandy snifter, dolled up like a julep with a mound of pebble ice and a mint sprig. The Jets to Brazil drinks like a caipirinha with a dash of creme de violette. In short, never met an Expat sipper I didn’t like.
As for the food, Sasser has a special gift for rillettes and pate, unctuous bread spreads that are far better cocktail accompaniments than the overtaxed oyster, if you ask me. Her rabbit rillettes, currently paired with peach compote, are whipped with duck fat. They remind me of buttery chicken salad. Chicken-liver pate, spread on H&F Bread Co. multigrain and topped with paper-thin radish slices and a scattering of microgreens, was dangerously good.
Smoked trout with creme fraiche, caviar and potato-chip scoops was fine, though not quite as exciting as it sounded. But the spring toast, layered with citrusy white cheese, fried favas, green-onion vinaigrette and a veil of exquisite little flowers and leaves, was a knockout.
Most of the escargot we encounter in French restaurants is drenched in garlic and butter. Here, for the first time in my life, I tasted the musty, under-the-flower-pot funk of the snail itself, and I rather liked it. If all else fails, get the gougeres. Sasser’s five fist-sized cheese puffs are textbook.
The chef also makes a very memorable burger: two Brasstown Beef patties with crunchy quick pickles, onion marmalade, creamy-tangy cow’s milk cheese from Hobo Cheese Co., a mix of greens, and smoked-garlic aioli. No ketchup, no tomato, no mustard, no special sauce, no American cheese. It’s an elegant, original and not ridiculously over-the-top stack, very good with the crispy pommes frites. (Make sure you get some aioli for those fries.)
The Beef Petite Tender is a gorgeous thing: a long, hefty teres major steak carved into chunks, topped with frisee and paired with crispy potatoes atop a smoked-asparagus puree. I could have skipped the green sauce, but otherwise a dazzler. More solid than stellar were a braised rabbit leg with fresh-herb gnudi and a duck breast with cassoulet-style white beans that could have been a little more tender. But man, the dainty little rabbit-pate toast that came with the duck was sensational.
Barley risotto, with turnips, carrots, kale, onion, boursin-style cheese and a poached egg, was lovely and fresh, a wonderful vegetarian option, much more restrained than your typical butter-and-cheese-clogged arborio. Finally, I can’t say enough good things about Sasser’s pasta panache. There’s only one pasta on the menu, but it’s a knockout: pappardelle with shreds of tender braised lamb, favas, English peas, roasted pearl onions, carrot puree, pistou and mascarpone, all of which come together like a dream. So rich and so damn good.
With Sasser, the Slaters have found a culinary partner who complements their philosophy of engaging customers via food and drink, sans the pretense and posturing. With the Expat, Athens has another restaurant worth traveling for. I feel a long-distance romance in the making.
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: inspired by the French classics, it’s made from locally sourced ingredients with bright, modern flair and a sense of restraint
Service: a little flighty one night, impeccable the next
Best dishes: Gougeres. Spring toast. Rabbit rilletes. Chicken-liver pate. Pasta (pappardelle with lamb). Burger. Beef Petite Tender. Barley risotto. Sorghum creme brulee.
Vegetarian selections: Local lettuces salad. Various cheese-board options. Gougeres. Pommes frites. Fougasse (Provencal flat bread). Spring Toast. Lentil hummus crudite. Barley risotto.
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays
Parking: free parking in the lot behind the restaurant
MARTA station: not applicable
Reservations: yes, recommended, especially if driving from out of town or on UGA game days
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: low, but we’ve never experienced the restaurant when it’s packed
Address, phone: 1680 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-521-5041
AJC DINING REVIEWS
Our star rating system is different from most. It is designed to help you know what to expect for the money and time you’ll spend and the distance you’ll travel.
Good: A fine addition to its neighborhood; the food is hit and miss.
Very good: A worthy destination for its genre.
Excellent: Definitive in the local dining scene.
Extraordinary: Superior cuisine, service and experience; can compete on the national stage.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria will receive no stars and be rated Fair or Unsatisfactory.
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 or less; $$$ means $50 or less; $$ means $25 or less; $ means $15 or less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.