Farm-to-table, pizza, hotdogs

Dining writer John Kessler is visiting a variety of metro Atlanta restaurants over 30 days.

Each day, for 30 days, lead dining writer John Kessler is blogging about a restaurant somewhere in metro Atlanta. It might be locally grown or a branch of a big chain, a favorite that deserves all the attention it can get, or a place he's driven by for the past 15 years without ever venturing inside. Expect some surprises, some finds, and advice on how to spend your dining dollars.

Here are capsules of his first three visits. …

White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails

White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta made a smart move in hiring Josh Hopkins to helm the kitchen. The former chef of Abattoir and STG Trattoria purchases the kind of ingredients you notice — which is exactly what should happen in a restaurant that bills itself as Southern farm-to-table.

Watermelon salad with pickled watermelon rind, cukes and ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms is a lively dance of fresh, rich and tangy flavors. The pan-seared grouper teaches a master course in pan searing, though some might balk at the maybe-6-ounces-of-fish to $28-price-tag ratio.

The only miss is the bone-dry fried chicken wearing a rock-hard helmet of batter. But, all told, the menu brings mostly good news.

So here’s the bad news: Hopkins will move on later this summer to Empire State South (where he’ll replace departing chef de cuisine Ryan Smith).

Shorty’s Pizza

With locations in Toco Hill and Tucker, Shorty’s Pizza serves thin-crust wood-fired pizzas named for diverse musical acts such as G. Love, Tito Puente, Biggie Smalls, Sid Vicious, Jack White, Ravi Shankar and Peter Tosh. As a menu, it’s like the iPod belonging to a 50-year-old guy who goes to hear new acts at the Earl in his vintage Buzzcocks T-shirt.

The restaurant also serves small plates, big salads, focaccia sandwiches and a handful of entrees.

If I may speak freely, here’s what the menu really features: old guy stoner food.

It’s all hilariously off-kilter, stuff you’d throw together with ample hunger but little artfulness, with the sole intention of jamming it merrily into your face.

But it’s the kind of food you want if you don’t want the carbs, grease and meat as much as the textures and flavors. Perhaps if you have started to worry more about what you eat.

A salad listed under small plates unites arugula, threads of spaghetti squash, a fistful of walnuts and ricotta salata cheese in a barely-there dressing. Yumstown.

HD1

When I first wrote about Richard Blais' "haute doggery" in Poncey-Highland, I gave it the review it deserved. The kitchen took creative liberties with the iconic tube steak, had fun with its punning menu and made some inventive dishes you wouldn't try elsewhere. I didn't love every bite, but I thought it succeeded with its stated mission to do for dogs what Blais' Flip Burger Boutique managed to pull off with hamburgers.

One thing bothered me, though. My daughter, who eats more hot dogs than I do, wasn’t thrilled, though she didn’t articulate why. As for me, I was never tempted to go back to HD1, even though I scratch the Flip itch occasionally. My gut told me something about the place never quite worked.

When I returned to HD1’s dark, starkly decorated dining room, I figured out why. With its high-top communal tables and hipster bar outfitted with craft canned beer, the restaurant feels like a destination. But a hot dog isn’t a destination meal the way a hamburger is. It’s a hunger that gets triggered — perhaps by the sight of a dirty-water Sabrett’s stand on a New York street corner, or at Turner Field, or even at a convenience store during a road trip down I-75.

And so HD1 remains a restaurant that puts care and creativity into its cooking, and yet never manages to hit the hot dog button quite right. The kitchen now uses dense, smoky Patak franks, which is an improvement, though the once-boisterous list of sides is gone. You can get waffle fries, half-sour pickles, baked beans and a couple of salads — none of it in funky-weird Blais territory.