Elemental Journey

When I first got wind of the new “public house” Restaurant Eugene chef/owner Linton Hopkins was planning, I vowed to be one of the first to try it. Hopkins isn’t just one of Atlanta’s most inventive chefs – he’s one of the most elegant interpreters of the Southern vernacular on the planet.

A Southern-style, informal “tavern,” with fun cocktails and small plates? I couldn’t wait to see what Hopkins had up his bacon-grease-spotted sleeve. The next thing I know, Holeman & Finch is an immediate media darling – even GQ magazine is singing a chorus, crowning one of the libations as among the nation’s 20 best.

The place already is so popular that you’ll need to strategize your visit: Like so many hit Atlanta restaurants of yore, H&F does not accept reservations. That means you’ll have to turn up before 6 p.m. to snag one of the few tables in this thin sliver of wood and glass facing Restaurant Eugene. It’s slightly less competitive to gain a perch on one of the barstools in the dark, comforting bar area, but I need a lot of space to stack up these small plates, made for sharing.

The restaurant is a fascinating mash-up on every count: Sleek, contemporary design with glass towers showcasing charcuterie, wines, the kitchen. (A bakery is in the works.) A clientele ranging from older, prosperous Eugene regulars to hip young folks there for the cocktails. A soundtrack that ranges from eerily atmospheric, modern “chill” beats on one night to the rugged, thrilling voice of 1920s star Paul Robeson on another.

And finally, there’s this tavern’s bill of fare. First, you’ll need a beverage. I treasure a well-made potable, but not the sugary drinks you usually find on restaurants’ “specialty cocktail” menus. Here, Holeman & Finch stands out. The choices presented on a laminated square of Coke carton cardboard are unique, made from ingredients such as Zuidam gin, Wathen’s small-batch bourbon, Kubler absinthe. More important, they have the sweet-tart balance of a great classic cocktail, whether the Kitty Hawk (cognac, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice, dried lavender), the Agro Non Dolce (bourbon, biscotti liqueur, citrus) or the GQ star, the Southern Cola. It’s been a long, long time since I ordered a drink based on Coca-Cola, but this short, cool sip in the familiar green glass was a revelation, set off by Amaro Cio Ciaro (an Italian bitter with rooty notes of sarsaparilla) and a cube of frozen lime juice.

The food shares the same sense of unfettered fun from someone who loves – and thoroughly knows – the rustic, elemental, Southern-hunt ingredients that H&F showcases: fresh white Tybee Island shrimp, fried whole; fabulously simple cornmeal-crisped fried oysters; the “Southern Ham showcase,” the meat wrapped like prosciutto around nectarine wedges; deviled eggs, as pretty and elegant as any itsy hors d’oeuvre; sweetly caramelized plump scallops with corn, tomatoes and limas.

Foodies will rejoice over such hard-to-find treasures as marrow gratin, “Gentleman’s Relish” (anchovy spread), and souse – a terrine-like slice of pig bits that my doubting tablemates finished to the last morsel. In two visits, I hit nearly everything on the menu, and it seemed to me that the more adventurous the dish (hen of the woods mushrooms with grits; steak tartare with fries) the greater the return – only relatively prosaic dishes such as skirt steak and new potatoes, or the “fool” (blueberries folded into whipped cream) were relative disappointments. Did I mention the crazy-good desserts? You’re going to have to order that Coca-Cola float with glazed doughnuts at least once in your life.

“I guess we’re going to have to change the menu so you can have something different next time,” our waiter announced. Yes, and you’d better get on it, because it won’t be long.



Holeman & Finch Public House


2277 Peachtree Road, Atlanta


404-948-1175


www.holeman-finch.com


Hours: Dinner, Monday-Saturday; Sunday brunch.


Credit cards: All major.


Parking: Complimentary valet.


Dress code: Smart clothes for a smart crowd.



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