Cutting through all the hype

Quality food simply prepared is mission at Miller Union.

What an amazing first year Miller Union has had. This westside spot has been called one of the best new restaurants in America by Bon Appetit and Esquire magazines as well as by the James Beard Foundation. Atlanta magazine named it the best new restaurant in the city. When I contacted chef/co-owner Steven Satterfield to ask a few questions, he apologized for the bad connection. He was in New York, having just made cornbread dressing on "The Martha Stewart Show."

I had seen Satterfield a few nights earlier as he was making his friendly rounds through the busy, dim, noisy chain of dining rooms at Miller Union. Lanky and loose-limbed, he always seems enveloped by his oversize chef's coat. Satterfield cuts a wholly different figure from his business partner, the posture-perfect Neal McCarthy, who roams the dining room in the kind of tailored Italian-cut suits that only the zero-percent body fat set can get away with.

That evening I also bumped into a colleague who was just leaving the restaurant. When I asked how she liked Miller Union, she said it was good but was expecting something more, "what with all the hype."

Ah, yes, the hype. You must overlook the serious buzz surrounding Miller Union to see it for what it is --- a restaurant that pairs simple food with good wine in a sophisticated setting. There's something kind of brilliant in its mission statement but also a part that feels (to me, at least) self-limiting. The fine, locally sourced ingredients speak for themselves with a faint Southern accent and, often, only a little salt and pepper for amplification. It's a modest tale of pork and kale, of chicken and carrots, and maybe a splash of rich cream.

Perhaps what makes Miller Union such a prime example of state-of-the-art dining in Atlanta is the way it melds the talents of its two owners, the sum greater than the parts. Satterfield was the longtime second-in-command at Watershed (and, before that, the front man for the Atlanta trance-rock band Seely). He's a culinary purist who celebrates good ingredients with great care at the stove. McCarthy, an Englishman, was the general manager at Sotto Sotto, and he takes both the wine list and staff education to heart. The two come together in local architecture firm AI3's celebrated dining room, where farmhouse design meets warehouse space under the best lighting in the city.

I've been here often enough to know I want one of the tables in the "library" room (set with bookshelves), where the sound engineering is at its most conversation-friendly. And then I want a salad because nobody knows how to dress bitter greens like Satterfield --- with a bare sheen of sharp shallot vinaigrette. The current salad ($7) with slivers of Georgia apple, celery, cress and romaine tastes just right on a pitch-black fall evening.

Talk about simple, I want chicken next. Satterfield takes a boneless breast and thigh of Darby Farms chicken ($21) and griddles them until the skin turns to a golden crisp with a bit of subcutaneous fat attaching it to the meat, as succulent as that beneath the skin on a roast suckling pig. Maybe I'd like a teensy-weensy more flavor pop from the vegetable sides --- mixed braised greens and cauliflower roasted with mustard seed --- that look gorgeous, taste healthy and ultimately turn boring.

But I'm not complaining, exactly, because these incredibly crisp-juicy pieces of chicken play so well off the wines on the list ---Miller Union's great ace in the hole.

McCarthy has curated a really enticing list of mostly American and French bottles that still makes room for free spirits like the racy Hungarian Kiralyudvar ($46), a dry white made from Tokaji Furmint. But I'm looking at the reds, and as the waiter knows the list inside and out, he manages to up-sell us from an inexpensive southern French blend to the 2008 Domaine de la Solitute Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($75), a tightly wound wine glinting with spice and power and changing from sip to sip.

It's nice to find food that can take a back seat to wine, as dining demands from time to time. It's nice to find a staff that knows how this works.

The menu changes with the seasons but not so much; some signature dishes have stayed on the menu from day one. The farm egg baked in a mild celery-infused cream ($8) is fun. You swirl the soft orange yolk into the shallow glaze of cream and dip toast rusks into the soft richness. Chicken liver mousse ($8) --- as soft as frosting and dark brown rather than rosy --- is less fun.

Oh, but the feta snack ($4)! I almost forgot to mention the dish that's the most fun of all. It's just a little ramekin of chunky-creamy feta spread with crunchy carrots, beans and radishes. But it's the most appetizing nibble you could hope for. Get one for the table.

Yet there are some new items to watch for. Chef de cuisine Justin Burdett prepares plump lamb sausages ($21) and places them over lentils with threads of braised red cabbage. (Beware: They are quite spicy, and there's no warning.) It's all very good, but I have to say I want the cabbage to be juicy and melting like it is in Germany, or maybe a splash of sauce to goop things up.

Satterfield isn't one for sauce. "I like things simple and don't want to add it if the dish doesn't need it, " he tells me. Maybe, but sometimes I think more moisture and mitigating flavors would help the ingredients on his plates hum the same tune. All kinds of wild mushrooms bounce around a plate of sauteed quail ($22) with arugula and a puck of cornbread dressing, and while the flavors are nice here and there, they never register as lush. Ditto a perfect slab of pan-seared flounder ($26) --- so heavenly for the first bites until its bed of Carolina Gold rice with butternut squash and escarole stiffens into a dense brick.

A bowl of braised rabbit ($28) over creamed turnips has the braising juices --- and the lustiness --- that keeps your fork returning to the food past the time you're full.

Pastry chef Lauren Raymond's desserts follow the kitchen's tone to a satisfying conclusion. Warm plum crisp ($7) comes with a thick custard sauce you can taste quality egg in. Apple-pecan cake ($7) stands tall and a bit dry, but its salty caramel-honey ice cream adds intrigue. Best is a warm brownie ($7) with crisp edges and that kind of fudgy denseness that feels like it's massaging your tongue with pure chocolate.

I always leave Miller Union thinking about the good ingredients I've eaten, from the fruity olive oil in the salad dressing to the bittersweet chocolate in the brownie. Do I leave with a major crush on any dish? Not really, but that's part of this restaurant's unusual appeal. Remember: simple food, good wine, stylish atmosphere. Maybe that's what all the hype is about.

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