Where There's Smoke
Art of the Meal
Which came first, Rocky the Free-Range chicken or the brown organic egg? Woodfire Grill chef/owner Michael Tuohy, like a lot of Atlantans, is an immigrant. The usual word is the oddly horticultural "transplant," but his Northern California background was as exotic and alien as any foreign shore when Tuohy first made his name here in the late '80s. At Chefs' Cafe he drew crowds to his brunches, served in the shadow of a La Quinta Inn and an I-85 overpass. Back then, San Francisco chefs Alice Waters' and Wolfgang Puck's devotion to locally grown, pesticide-free produce and meats were still thought of here as quaint (read: yucky) health-food quirks.
But when Georgia's organic farmers found the support of local chefs like Tuohy, Guenther Seeger, and Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, Atlantans delightedly rediscovered the wealth of their own cultural traditions. Many Southerners' fondest taste memories are tied to products from small farms, raised with few chemicals, before livestock lived on concrete. Many were shocked to learn that their reveries weren't just nostalgia -- fresh-caught, wild trout cooked over a campfire really does taste better than anything that could be made from a tame, frozen variety. Woodfire Grill effortlessly marries that Northern California devotion to fresh, local, seasonal natural ingredients with Atlanta diners' cravings for elemental, but spectacular, and sanely priced food.
Although Tuohy made few structural changes to the space that long housed so-so seafood grill Marra's, you won't find any trace of the old beach theme. The color scheme, lighting and fabrics all seem to emanate from the namesake roaring woodfire grill. A rough-hewn chef's table in the front room (available by request) allows diners to watch the action, as Niman Ranch pork chops, Colombia River coho salmon, and of course Rocky (named by the Petaluma farm that supplies it) are all masterfully rendered crisp-edged and smoky over the 500-plus degree flames.
The menu changes daily, according to what's available, but a few favorites, like Rocky the chicken, cedar-planked salmon, an olive oil tasting and fritto misto of calamari and sardines, are staples. Organized in batches of "tastes" and "small plates," the appetizers range in size from tiny dim sum dots to tapas. A bowl of marinated olives -- cerignola, picholine, gaeta, ascolane -- begin the journey through the Spanish and California climes that produced them. The wine list, too, is overwhelmingly West Coast, with a few European, Australian and New Zealand labels. (In October, Food & Wine placed Woodfire Grill on its Top 10 Best New Wine Lists.)
Tuohy also manages to protect the fragile flavors of the freshest seafood, such as the Beausoleil oysters on the half-shell, so pristine they're nearly floral. The accompanying "champagne mignonette" is atypically oil-free, brisk but delicate, with minced onion and peppers. If you want to try Woodfire Grill for just a glass of wine and a snack, go for a grilled pizza. Somehow, the white coals brought out the best in our shiitake mushroom pie, layered with sweet, caramelized onion, browned fontina cheese and perfumed with truffle oil, the chewy crust blooming under the heat like a midday rose. One bite sums up the restaurant.
But a long-term commitment also pays off: Spit-roasted James Ranch leg of lamb is rosy-centered, charred at the edges and delectable throughout, served with a creamy pool of polenta and long, al dente green beans. The bone-dry Zaca Mesa syrah is a sturdy support beam.
Cheeses are woven throughout the menu, so important that Tuohy holds a monthly tasting (this month, Jan. 13, 6-7:30 p.m.). For $20, he walks you through a themed course of cheeses, served with two glasses of wine -- one of the best deals in town. So you'd be crazy to miss the cheese plate for dessert, another world tour (although Tuohy also regularly features Georgia's own Sweet Grass Dairy products). From the hard, nutty, raw goat's milk cheese to the fabulously smelly epoisse, you'll be taken down European side roads and West Coast country lanes. However, my new favorite taste was the surprising simplicity of port-macerated fresh figs, with sugar syrup, orange zest and ricotta-like "cowgirl" fromage blanc. Small touches like potent, French press coffee send you floating home.
I guess it doesn't really matter which comes first, the chicken or the egg -- as long as Michael Tuohy is cooking them.
1782 Cheshire Bridge Road
Reservations: Accepted, but not required.
Hours: Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-1030 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Credit cards: All major.
Parking: Complimentary valet.
Prices: Dinner entrees, $19-$26. Platter for sharing (serves two), $28-$38.
Attire: Anything from dressy to comfortable, hearth-lounging wear.