South By Southwest
Art of the Meal
The Georgia Grille
2290 Peachtree Road, Atlanta
Hours: Dinner, Tuesdays-Sundays.
Credit cards: All major.
Parking: Free in shopping center lot.
Dress code: Jeans and Ts to Buckhead casual (blazers and tasseled loafers).
Fifteen years ago, Karen Hilliard opened Georgia Grille in south Buckhead, after returning to town from Texas.
Closing her nine-table restaurant called Peach's and packing her battered old Coca-Cola cooler into a truck, she'd arrived determined to bring Southwestern flavors to the Old South.
Named for Southwestern artist Georgia O'Keeffe, the restaurant is small (Hilliard's office is a loft she climbs a ladder to reach), and the menu short, but success has been sweet: Hilliard's uncanny understanding of her niche in the market brings back a dedicated corps of loyalists, along with lots of neighborhood types.
"I have some customers who were there the first week we opened, and have been coming ever since," she says. "Every Sunday night, I know who's going to be there, and where they're going to sit."
Somehow, despite Hilliard's success, her restaurant keeps a low profile, unknown even among many foodies. (That may change soon, as Hilliard launches a line of frozen Southwestern foods on QVC.)
The menu has changed little over the years, with so many items becoming favorites, she says, that "I couldn't take them off if I tried." It all sounds simple enough -- Southwestern greatest hits like guacamole, cheese dip, quesadillas, pork tenderloin fajitas, grilled yellowfin tuna and a flat iron steak.
Each dish, however, has a fresh twist. Take, for example the "hot shots" -- known in every cantina between here and Hoboken as "poppers": usually frozen, breaded, deep-fried jalapenos, oozing with cream cheese. At the Georgia Grille, the fresh-cut jalapenos are sheathed in crisp cornmeal, with melting queso innards and black beans and salsa on the side. The "Southwestern mac-and-cheese" is baked in a poblano pepper. Rich bacon-buttermilk dressing adorns the organic field green salad.
At $27, the lobster enchilada is by far the priciest on the menu, but, says Hilliard, the last dish she could pry out of her customers' firmly clenched fists. I can see why: Creamily simple, in a smoked red pepper reduction, the big lobster lumps peek out from under the flour tortilla like slugabeds on a school day. A friend who ordinarily hates all crustaceans was so taken with it he vowed to order it on his next visit.
Fussy and prickly-spiced as the lobster enchiladas were simple and serene, the pork tenderloin fajitas look like a paint-by-numbers portrait on the plate, each element in its own clearly defined area, snapping into a unified view only with a step back: Apple-cider-marinated pork, apple red chile chutney, fried collards, black beans, creamed corn salsa, caramelized onions, all served with flour tortillas, link familiar Southern sweetness with distinctly Southwestern heat.
Hilliard offers a small, but carefully chosen wine list, with wine-enthusiast labels like Rodney Strong, Caymus, Frog's Leap and Bonnie Doon. But if you like margaritas, this is the place -- sip one of the Grille's fresh-squeezed key lime versions, rimmed with salt and served straight up. Unlike most overly sweet restaurant margaritas, this is a pleasantly balanced drink, made with Sauza Gold tequila. (You'll also find aged Corazon tequila, for sipping.)
For dessert, there are never more than two or three choices, but mine is always cobbler: Here, it's a heap of mixed berries with lightly sweetened crust, and a big scoop of ice cream. If you've ever been berry-picking, one bite will unleash more memories than Proust's madeleine.
If the Georgia Grille is a well-kept secret, it's one that's made for sharing.
Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.