Exciting new restaurant a labor of love


349 14th St., Atlanta. 404-695-4547, betterhalfatl.com. $$$

On a high shelf overlooking the dining room at Better Half, a six-volume set of the landmark food-geek bible “Modernist Cuisine” stands between a moonshine jug marked with a cartoon-worthy “XX” and a stuffed penguin. The juxtaposition may make you laugh, but it encapsulates the unusual spirit here, where culinary precision keeps company with good humor and a keen sense of the pleasure principle.

Better Half snuck onto the scene in mid-December, opened with only a Facebook post and a tweet. Set on a dark stretch of 14th Street halfway between Midtown’s buzzy hotspots and the westside’s gourmet warehouses, it comes across like the studio apartment of Atlanta dining. A two-man kitchen, surrounded by a dining counter, juts into the small room like a proscenium stage. When a mere 25 people settle inside this space, it’s a party.

One of those two cooks is co-owner Zach Meloy. His better half, Cristina, may be seen managing the dining room when she’s not at home with their toddler, Amalia. The two previously ran a restaurant called Media Naranja in Costa Rica, Cristina’s homeland, but when tourism dried up during the recession, they relocated to Atlanta, Zach’s hometown. Here, they hit the scene with a supper club, PushStart Kitchen, which earned high marks from diners who attended their dinners.

I have to admit that I never paid the now-defunct supper club much attention, perhaps because it seemed like a particularly awkward circle of hell to share a meal with a group of strangers — one that had been hand delivered by the chef! — and explain that I was a dining critic. So I had no idea what an important new voice we had in Zach Meloy.

His daily changing menu features only four appetizers, five entrees and four desserts. While the plate components feel very much at the whim of market ingredients, the culinary ideas carry over from one iteration to the next; Meloy works at these recipes, which is why the flavors resonate.

I’m thinking about two gorgeously pan-crisped fillets of Bramlett Farms trout set over a buttered popcorn puree and topped with a smoky, cuminy version of piperade, a slivered pepper relish. Funny, delicious, layered, virtuosic, hearty — you don’t hear that string of adjectives too often.

Seared scallops nestle against a pillow of rice grits (think Chinese congee with the texture of grits) on a blanket of reduced ham stock so sleek and glossy it feels like butter in your mouth. A hearty ladleful of ham-stewed pinto beans keeps the dish from seeming too chefy and puts it back in the realm of “real plate of food.”

Meloy does have a painterly eye (he is responsible for the hilarious robot mural on the back wall) but he wants you to dig into his food rather than admire it. Even something as potentially twee as a salad of raw and roasted beets decorated with feathery twists of candied dehydrated fennel gets a down-to-earth base of green goddess dressing and bits of earthy burned onion. This is the salad that signs the beet and goat cheese divorce papers.

The one dish that doesn’t change is called “silk handkerchief pasta” — a kind of free-form draping of fresh pasta sheets with wild mushrooms, cojita cheese, porcini cream and one bright, sweet dollop of tomato marmalade. It is the Meloys’ calling card, their story. It’s the dish Zach made for Cristina on their first date. The colorful clay bird whistles that decorate each table were the party favors at their wedding. Cute. And fair warning: This is more of a get engaged than public breakup kind of restaurant.

Better Half has barely been open a month, well within the “opening kinks” phase of its existence. There are a few. A tasty-enough teres major steak (cooked sous vide to achieve fork tenderness) with collard greens and cold marbles of Asher blue cheese would have been mind-blowingly delicious had the plate been a few degrees hotter, encouraging the ingredients to meld rather than fight each other. And the texture of a white chocolate pudding reminded me slightly of the cement the dentist used to make my retainer mold in ninth grade. I was happy to pass it along and sink my spoon into a lovely Mexican hot chocolate tres leches cake with cocoa crumbs and molasses ice cream.

That dessert cried for good coffee, but this young restaurant is still trying to figure out how to manage a high quality coffee and tea service within its tight space.

Nor does Better Half offer any wine. Cristina said they should get their liquor license in early February, but until then you should know to bring your own bottle.

Although the Meloys try to make sure all diners know about the wine situation ahead of time, we didn’t get the message. Nice people that they are, they keep a few bottles of inexpensive California cabernet sauvignon on hand as an impromptu gift and offered us one. It was a lovely gesture, but this food deserves a serious bottle.