Art Of The Meal: Cakes For What Ails You

Cakes & Ale

254 W. Ponce de Leon Avenue (until mid-to late October). Check website for updates on new location.

Decatur, 404.377.7994

Reservations: Essential, especially on weekends.

Credit cards: Accepted.

Parking: On the street and in nearby garages

Dress code: Casual.

While many restaurants suffer and shutter in this tough economic environment, downtown Decatur’s Cakes & Ales is succeeding so well that the owners are preparing to move into a new, larger spot (see opposite page, below). It’s easy to understand why: The creative cooking; the savvy wait staff; the relaxing vibe, despite crowds; the fresh meats and produce (some from chef/co-owner Billy Allin’s own garden, and almost all from local, artisanal producers).

You’ll find more flavorful, carefully prepared whole grains and fresh vegetables here than in many designated “vegetarian” restaurants. Meat eaters will find plenty to dig into as well – in fact, you’re likely to find fabulous, locally raised pork, lamb and beef in addition to wild salmon, sustainable shrimp and, of course, hearty meat-free dishes like gnocchi with eggplant and squash with protein-bolstering pecans.

Besides the Shakespearean inspiration for the name (“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” from Twelfth Night), my favorite thing about this restaurant isn’t all that wonderful local, seasonal stuff, but something a whole lot simpler: good chicken.

If you are, like me, a lover of the lowly yardbird, you are surely rejoicing over the newest trend of finding tasty restaurant chicken – something most of us rarely order at good dining establishments because it’s so often the bland choice for people afraid of everything else. We Southerners are used to finding crispy-skinned, deep-fried birds at meat-and-threes or luncheonettes, but if you’ve never had really fresh, really young, truly free-range chicken, cooked so well that you ignore restaurant scene-stealers like scallops or lamb to dig into a pulley bone … well, you’ve never really had chicken.

At Cakes & Ale, poussin, a very young, small chicken, may be prepared a number of ways according to the chef’s whim, but we had it with a “succotash” of shrimp, black-eyed peas and corn with farro (a whole-wheat grain), with a thatched roof of tender sunflower sprouts.

Succulent, moist and tender, the braised and lightly browned half-bird gives the cliché “tastes like chicken” a whole new meaning. It almost – almost – made us forget how good our other entrees were, including Middle-Eastern inspired lamb-and-beef meatballs with a large Sardinian couscous called fregola, whole-roasted okra, plum tomatoes and sweet pea tendrils, with a dollop of lime-mint yogurt. We also loved the wild salmon with potatoes, pole beans and chive mayonnaise. Another thing to like: Dishes are wholly composed plates, with sane portions of proteins, starch and vegs (three smallish meatballs; a half Cornish hen-sized bird with liberal dollops of grains and greens).

Spices are mild, designed to coax out the natural essences in these wild and/or organic ingredients – the beaniness of the purple pole beans and the oceanic hint in the Atlantic salmon – rather than compensating for the lack of flavor often found in mass-produced ones.

Summer’s end will mean a bounty of new dishes, spurred by whatever crop is currently harvested, so the daily-changing menu might be very different from those we enjoyed. But Cakes & Ale also really delivers on delectable pre-meal tidbits, great cocktails and carefully chosen beers and wines. (Those by the glass may also be ordered by the three-glass carafe, at a dollar more than two glasses.)

Killer apps include the trademark arancini (fried riceballs with cheese); smoked trout on toast; and a soak-up-every-drop concoction of squid with mild, whole Padrón peppers. Do not, under any circumstance, fail to order pastry chef Cynthia Wong’s desserts – the grilled pound cake with berries and whipped cream is like a superlative caramelized pancake with just enough fresh fruit and cream.

Cakes & Ale isn’t the place to come if you’re craving a gigantic steak or chop, or if you expect Flintstones-sized portions. But I’ve never left this restaurant without feeling both virtuous and full of cakes and ale.

Categories: Art of the Meal