Some people swoon over Cole Porter lyrics or Shakespeare sonnets. To me, the most magical words in the English language are “bucket of crispy fried chicken.” Make it Joey Ward’s bird, while you’re at it.
Ward, executive chef of Southern Belle/Georgia Boy, developed the recipe for his brined and sous vide-cooked chicken while in quarantine with his wife and restaurant partner, Emily. When he decided to offer takeout at his neon-lit Ponce de Leon Avenue diner after a six-week pause, he made it the centerpiece of a recent four-course dinner for two from his Better Than Home Cooking menu.
That menu could have been a greatest hits of Ward’s career so far: the slow-smoked collards he fell in love with during his tenure at the late Woodfire Grill; the cheddar-ramp biscuits with strawberry-ramp jam that earned him oohs and aahs at Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow; and a sticky toffee-coffee pudding with Biscoff cream that reflects the whimsy he fashioned for Southern Belle, which took flight in November.
A chef with a remarkable skill set, Ward, 34, has wanted to work in food since at least kindergarten. When he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 2005, he was the youngest in his class, a mere 20.
Forking into his big Caesar salad’s rich, anchovy-whipped dressing and Parmesan crispies, turning up the containers to drink the last of his honey-glazed, butter-bathed carrots flecked with tarragon and smokey collard pot liquor, it occurred to me that the pandemic perversely might be ushering in another golden age of elevated Southern comfort food. This is the kind of locally manifested, historically reverent, simple, but elegant, cuisine that reached a zenith in the first decade of this century, when chef Scott Peacock got his schooling from the masterful Edna Lewis, and turned Watershed in Decatur into a kind of national shrine.
In these strange times, Ward knows the 16-course tasting menus he envisioned for consumption around two eight-seat communal tables at Georgia Boy, the atelier-style restaurant tucked behind Southern Belle, aren’t appropriate. So, with Southern Belle at Home, he’s devised a trio of weekly takeout options that offer rigorous craft, clever packaging, and even vegan and Buford Highway-inspired menus.
“It’s been a fun challenge to try to figure out what travels well, and how we can still put our own brand of creativity and have the attention to detail you would get inside the Southern Belle dining room, but have it be unpacked in your house,” he said over the phone, while making Parmesan-lace baskets for his Mother’s Day menu. (The dainty Caesar “bowls” are a holdover from his time in the kitchen at Cherokee Town and Country Club; he cooked there while still in high school.)
Truth is, all this deliciousness might not be happening if Ward didn’t taken care of his team. Southern Belle filed for partial unemployment for its staff, offered $500 “stimulus” checks to hold them over during the process, started a GoFundMe campaign that financed a second employee stipend, and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan that helped stabilize the business.
Ultimately, such caring management allows Ward to cook food that makes him happy, and still surprise and delight his customers. To paraphrase those stickers on his takeout containers: Bless his heart.
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Menu: three changing weekly menus: Better Than Home Cooking, A Trip Down Buford Highway and Yes Ve Gan (vegan); also: a bowl option, like ramen, or this week's fried rice with beef tenderloin, shrimp, veggies and yum-yum sauce
What's new: Southern Belle is serving serve hot food and bottled mock cocktails during next-door Plaza Theatre's weekend drive-in features in the parking lot behind the building. Also, artisanal cakes by staffer KT Blackmon. (Joey Ward's favorites are the Oreo and lemon berry mascarpone.)
Alcohol: wine, beer, bottled cocktails
What I ordered: the Better Than Home Cooking fried chicken dinner for two, $58. The very generous spread includes 10 pieces of chicken (the wing is cut in two), a salad, two veggies and dessert.
Service options: order online; contact-free pickup; no delivery
Safety protocols: small staff shares two kitchens and rotates shifts; protective gear worn; temperatures checked and logged
Address, phone: 1043 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-698-3961Hours: 5-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays.
Read the AJC Fall Dining Guide: The Noodle Edition
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