Roswell's pimento cheese continuum


ExploreTHE MILL KITCHEN & BAR

Overall rating: 1 of 5 stars

Food: American comfort food with many classic Southern dishes

Service: making the effort but needs more training

Best dishes: shrimp and grits, boar meatballs

Vegetarian selections: salads, garden sandwich

Price range: $$-$$$

Credit cards: all major cards

Hours: 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sundays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Children: fine

Parking: yes, parking lot

Reservations: yes

Wheelchair access: yes

Smoking: no

Noise level: loud when full

Patio: yes

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 590 Mimosa Blvd., Roswell. 770-817-9345.

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Pimento cheese: the tie that binds. These days any self-respecting Southern-inspired restaurant has it on the menu in some form or another.

Ironically, this overdone Southern delicacy actually isn’t Southern at all. Shock and horror! Culinary historian Robert F. Moss traces its roots back to the industrial revolution and the commercial availability of Neufchatel cheese (produced in the Northeast) and jars of pimentos from Spain.

Be that as it may, we have adopted it as our own and guard it with a certain ferocity. Ergo, pimento cheese plays a starring role on most upscale Southern-style restaurant menus south of the Mason-Dixon line. It also unites the places that have occupied the space that is now the Mill Kitchen & Bar.

The Mill took over the spot that once housed Relish and later Pico Auténtico. Located on the Roswell square, each of the three restaurants has featured pimento cheese fritters. Relish was known for them, and when the restaurant’s owners abruptly changed the Southern concept to a Mexican one, those iconic cheese balls didn’t budge from the menu.

Now, the Mill carries the pimento-cheese torch, with its crisp fritters concealing the melty pepper-studded cheese spread served over clove-scented tomato jam and vinegary chow chow ($8).

Yet, I’m told the fritter redux was unintentional. Rather, they are a Marc Taft signature.

Taft, chef-owner of Chicken and the Egg in Marietta, joined forces with Scott and Randy McCray to open the Mill. Taft developed a menu studded with American comfort foods and iconic Southern dishes appropriate for the quintessential Southern neighborhood restaurant.

He also had a hand in the beverage program, working with mixologist Kevin McKinney to put together an impressive craft beer list sporting choices like Bell’s Two Hearted Ale ($6), a wine list featuring small domestic producers, and signature cocktails complete with, of course, bacon.

The brothers McCray focused on the business aspects of the restaurant. They gave the long-empty facility new life by creating three distinct spaces: a lovely Pottery Barn-worthy dining room, a large bar area complete with televisions for sports viewing, and a patio. The outdoor space received a major overhaul, resulting in a handsome enclave adorned by an arbor and a wood-burning stacked-stone fireplace.

Expanded bar seating and live music on the patio draw locals, as does one of the best kids menus around. The meals, comprised of a main, side and drink for $4-$5, include items like White Oak Pastures grass-fed beef burgers, fried Georgia shrimp and hand-battered Ashley Farms hormone- and steroid-free chicken tenders.

Capitalizing on Taft’s reputation for fine Southern fare, Scott McCray said they “positioned him in front” when promoting the restaurant. Consequently, Roswell residents were hopeful about what Taft would bring to the area.

It turns out that he only brought a menu and a jumping-off point. During the course of the review process, I learned that Taft no longer has any affiliation with the restaurant, save a chef de cuisine who Scott McCray says they are “holding over” until a new one is found.

Taft’s menu remains, for the moment, as do the relationships he forged with local farmers and suppliers like Crystal Organic Farm, Mills Farm and Blue Ridge Honey Co. It’s this mindful sourcing that best expresses Southern cuisine, more so than renditions of iconic dishes.

The Mill’s website promises “contemporary takes” on American comfort food. But when it comes right down to it, fried chicken is fried chicken is fried chicken. Here, the fried chicken ($17) has a nice thick, crusty, well-seasoned coating covering the moist brined breast. Continuing the theme, the chicken comes with a sticky mac and cheese and braised greens so gritty they almost bite back.

The shrimp and grits ($18), another classic, stands out among the entrees. Plump shrimp sport a Worcestershire-heavy sauce mixed with spicy andouille and tasso ham, blistered cherry tomatoes and sweet Vidalia onions. You’ll dig into the gouda grits to swab up more of the sauce.

And if you’ve got pimento cheese and shrimp and grits on the menu, you must have mayonnaisey deviled eggs ($5) topped with sweet bits of candied bacon and chives. Maybe you also need some crispy chicharonnes ($3) with a hot sauce aioli for noshing.

In addition, the menu pays homage to a somewhat recent Atlanta tradition, the double-stack burger made popular at places like Bocado and Holeman & Finch Public House. The double-patty burger here ($9) is made with two fat White Oak Pastures beef rare-in-the-center burgers topped with American cheese and beef juice dripping into the brioche bun.

When it comes to meat, I’ll take the tender wild boar meatballs ($8) with hints of fennel seed and garlic. They are served in cast-iron crocks with a thick tomato sauce that has bits of parmesan cheese.

Let’s go back to that burger for a minute to talk about the fries. On my first and second visits, the hand-cut, crispy and well-seasoned fries rivaled some of of the most popular in town. On my last visit, to my great disappointment I found them quite a different specimen. I could be convinced that these limp and oily impostors were frozen, though I was assured that they were not.

The fry incident whispers of changes to come. On my most recent visits, I noticed a slippage in quality. And things may be a-changin’ … like the fruit-studded chicken salad croissant ($8) that no longer contains the curry that made it interesting.

As we wait for the kitchen to level out, stop by the patio to enjoy a beer, some live music and maybe a meatball.

The Mill Kitchen & Bar gave its handsome space on the square a fresh start. Now, with the restaurant in transition as it searches for a new chef, Roswell may be in for yet another fresh start.