River Deep, Mountain High

Art of the Meal

We Georgians have the world in a state. This northwestern corner, along the winding two-lane called Plum Nelly (for plum out of Georgia and nelly into Alabama), is a cloud-misted tip of the Appalachians, which slopes downward into Atlanta’s lush Piedmont, and all the way to sea level at Savannah. In Rising Fawn, Cloudland Canyon State Park is an impressionist portrait of breathtaking mountain scenery, with a view from Lookout Mountain into the chasm carved out by Sitton Gulch Creek, almost 2,000 feet below.

The people who live here subsist largely on icy oxygen, abundant natural beauty and barbecue. The surroundings represent such a careless wealth of soul-sustaining inspiration that asking for something more than simple country cooking to go along with it seems selfish.

The Canyon Grill was born of simple foodways — owner Cal Hagood’s grandmother cured ham and bacon and served biscuits and sandwiches here at a little country store called Bea’s for more than 20 years. Cal’s father promised her another restaurant would reopen on this spot, and after the place sat vacant for more than seven years, her grandson has more than done her proud.

Open just Wednesday through Saturday, the Canyon Grill still looks a little like a country store. But the young owner’s touches are evident from the moment you sit down, with kosher salt and a pepper grinder on every table. Local providers still supply fresh herbs and tomatoes. There’s no wine or beer, but you may bring your own.

The menu changes seasonally, but offers both the accessible and familiar (fried seafood, steak, grilled fish, roast pork tenderloin, pasta and Southern sides like squash, limas, sweet potatoes) and the challenging: Tautog, a fish more familiar to Northerners, wolf fish, frog legs and a messy but delicious appetizer called rajas: sauted mozzarella cheese with blackened poblanos, onions and cumin, served with flour tortillas. (All the guilty pleasure of fried cheese, with the redeeming qualities of vegetables.)

We weren’t able to resist ordering the signature Slash N Burn Catfish, an eye-popping presentation of whole deep-fried catfish swimming in black beans. You chip off the peppery fried overcoat to release a thin piping of steam and flaky white flesh. The black beans are inspired counterpoints, but the dish’s sheer heft (one and a half pounds per fish, on average) wholly defeated us. It would, however, be a great dish to share.

The seafood platter has more of that cracker-thick, peppery batter on oysters, a more manageable serving of catfish, and two tender, moist, wood-smoked shrimp. Our favorite dishes here are the humble, homely type, their subtleties elevating them to Cloudland altitudes. The roast pork tenderloin is a perfect example, infused with garlic and rosemary, cooked a perfect medium-pink, and served with cream sauce and broccoli. And when cabbage becomes a hauntingly memorable dish, you know you’re in the hands of a real chef. Johnny Holland slices a head of red cabbage in half, brushes it with olive oil and grills it, then smears the softened head with reduced heavy cream, garlic and whole, smushed anchovies. We’d just about make the long trek up this narrow mountain road again just for that.

You’ll have to have dessert, and you must also have coffee: We know of few Atlanta restaurants outside of gourmet favorite Seeger’s that serve it in French press pots, but you’ll find it here at the Canyon Grill. By now, you’ll be unsurprised to find that your unflaggingly cheerful waitress has also warmed the little pitcher of thick cream, so as not to cool your coffee too quickly. The coconut cake — topped with a rich evaporated milk icing and Health bar chips — will be waiting.

Just catch a passing cloud for your ride home.

Krista Reese is Georgia Trend’s restaurant critic. Contact her at gtcritic@mindspring.com.

Categories: Art of the Meal