Get fresh at Atkins Park

Plus a visit to Chazz in East Atlanta Village

It wasn’t that long ago in the urban South that you heard can openers whirring in the summer heat.  My assumption is that people became so accustomed to the convenience and taste of canned vegetables, they weren’t really attracted to garden-grown produce.

When fresh produce did show up on urban tables, it usually came from the grocery store and was typically cooked beyond recognition — often to the degree that it was indistinguishable from canned food. I’m thinking about green beans in particular. Yellow summer squash was boiled and mashed with butter and bacon fat. Tomatoes, thanks to the miracle of hydroponic greenhouses, were mealy and flavorless year round. It was not until I was in my 20s, living in Elberton, that I tasted a garden-grown tomato.

Happily, restaurants have turned local produce into a virtual fad during the last few years. One of those is Atkins Park Restaurant (794 N. Highland Ave., 404-876-7249), well-known as the longest continually licensed bar in the city. The chef is Andrew Smith, who earlier worked for Scott Peacock of Watershed and Shaun Doty of Shaun’s.

I’d visited Atkins Park soon after Smith was hired about four years ago and had a good meal, but several foodies encouraged me to visit again recently. I did and had another great, relatively inexpensive meal.

We tried two starters, including the crab cakes, which we also sampled four years ago. They deviate from the usual form, both in their vertical construction and a particularly crunchy exterior that reminded me of salmon patties. They were packed with lump crab meat and served with a leek fondue and toasted mustard, a nice touch, especially with the blast of cider vinegar. I’m kind of over crab cakes, but it’s always nice to run into a playful, creative version.

We also ordered the lamb spareribs, which I don’t recall encountering on any other menu in the city. I’d happily make a meal of these. Smith smokes them on the premises and bastes them in a peach barbecue sauce. They were super tender, smoky, tangy, sweet and not a bit gamy.

A third appetizer on the dinner menu is a Southern take on Caprese salad – local tomatoes and mozzarella with Vidalia onions and basil. Most of these starters, by the way, are probably plenty for two average eaters.

For his entrée, Wayne selected the market vegetable plate, an $11 bargain, although there was nothing particularly unusual on it: juicy heirloom tomatoes, roasted Vidalia onions, succotash of Silver Queen corn and field peas, fried eggplant and pickled okra. That’s a good bit of sweet flavor, so the pickled okra worked especially well on the plate.

I ordered the day’s fish, Virginia striped bass served over creamed corn with zipper-pea pancakes. This is one of the best dishes I’ve encountered in a while in its play of textures and flavors. The creamed corn was so rich it could have been dessert. The three zipper-pea pancakes added an intensely earthy touch to the dish. I will say that without the bass’ crispy skin, the dish might be too exaggerated a riff on creamy texture for some.

Dessert was fresh blueberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream. One bowl was plenty for both of us. I loved the texture of the pastry. Some bites were like angel food cake, a terrific sop for the melting ice cream and the juicy berries.

All entrees but one are under $20 here. There’s also a menu of burgers and sandwiches, including one of pulled pork with a North Carolina-style barbecue sauce. There’s a Caprese sandwich made with French bread and a muffuletta, too.

New in East Atlanta

On our Omnivore blog, one of our commenters recently remarked that, besides having “abhorrent ethics,” I am infamous for giving bad reviews to restaurants where I lick my plate clean.

Too bad he wasn’t at Chazz (517 Flat Shoals Ave., 404-748-1875) earlier this week. This new soul food café served us one of the most mystifyingly strange meals I’ve encountered in a long time. And neither of us licked our plates clean. In fact, we were almost embarrassed by the amount we didn’t eat.

Honestly, I feel bad about dissing a restaurant run by such nice people in a location that has repeatedly failed. But this seems to be a place that, even in the middle of summer, isn’t especially impressed with fresh vegetables, although to their credit, none are cooked with meat. Perhaps my fried okra was fresh, but if so, someone has perfected the art of duplicating the frozen version. Collards were finely chopped, bitter and strangely ink-colored.

A starter of fried green tomatoes featured slices that were so thin, they were outweighed by their batter and so salty my mouth burned. I was not willing to extinguish the burn by dipping them in the ketchup provided. Ketchup on fried green tomatoes? That’s right. I said ketchup.

A Caesar salad was so drenched in dressing that it dribbled when you picked up the greens with your fork. Green beans, like the okra, were either canned or pretending to be.

The most shocking part of the meal was my Southern-fried buttermilk chicken. It was a flat, boneless little pancake of breast meat. The flavor wasn’t too bad, but you’d get more for your $7.99 by going to Chick-fil-A.  Wayne ordered a sirloin steak. He wasn’t expecting much for $10.99 and his expectations were thoroughly met. At least it was more substantial than my chicken. It tasted like your typical diner steak.

We were too weirded out to order dessert – and found it strange that the cobblers cost $5.99 when entrees are only a few dollars more.

In fairness, others in the dining room said they enjoyed their barbecued ribs and fried fish. (I actually wish I’d tried the shrimp and grits.) The restaurant was also very warm, to the degree that we changed tables so we could sit in front of the anemically blowing window air conditioner.

Maybe Chazz will get better. I really hope so.

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