First Look: Napoleon's Grill

Prosaic Decatur gastropub, plus a sneak peek at Sprig

Oy veh. The Thrillist profile for Napoleon's Grill (2836 La Vista Road, Decatur, 404-321-5000) warns you that the gastropub doesn't actually take its name from the short man with the imperious hand stuffed in his vest. Instead, says the profile, it's named after Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, the 1937 tome that became a reborn best-seller during the Reagan era.

It's a joke. And yet, like that pandering book, there's something highly formulaic about this place in Decatur's Oak Grove area. The menu is mainly a litany of the tried and the true — "foods people crave" — with the occasional kinky flourish.

This befits the restaurant's heritage. It was opened by Sean Keenan and Chris Blanchard of Front Page News and Tijuana Garage, and Ryan Aiken, one of our city's most creative (but low-key) chefs. As such, Napoleon's is a hybrid of the prosaic and the poetic, or potentially so. I'm afraid the prosaic generally wins out. Sheer numbers guarantee that. The menu is enormous.

But consider Aiken's resume. He was executive chef at Indigo Coastal Grill in Morningside, one of the city's scene-shifting venues. Then he blew the burrito market apart with his multicultural Burrito Art. Then there was Misto and Saba, both more conventional Italian spots.

So, I was pretty stunned to see Aiken producing a menu of mainly straightforward bar food. Even when I was drawn to one somewhat unusual dish — lamb cheeks over risotto cakes — I was told it had been taken off the menu. "Very few people ordered it," my server told me. And that matters a lot in a restaurant that's doing high volume business with a very diverse clientele (which is certainly part of the pleasant vibe there).

I've dined at Napoleon's twice and, while I've had nothing I would characterize as bad, I didn't encounter anything that excited me. You'd have to eat here at least five times with three friends to get a thorough tasting of the menu. Literally none of the "official" appetizers appealed to me, so I ordered one of the five hot dogs available — one with chili sauce, salsa verde, cilantro and salsa fresca. I agree with the menu's description. It was "just plain good."

I also sampled one of the 11 soft tacos offered — a Korean one. It was absolutely huge and served wrapped in tinfoil, so it had turned soggy. There was no fire to its taste — only a cloying sweetness. The hot dog had better flavor and more complexity. Wayne did order one item from the appetizer menu — some fries with a peanut-coconut curry sauce. That, I believe, is the same sauce Aiken used in his Thai creation at Burrito Art. It remains irresistible.

Among entrées, my favorite was another Thai-tinted dish — crab cakes with quite-spicy Asian slaw, a sharp house mustard and a sweet "red dragon" sauce. Generally, I'm sick of crab cakes, but Aiken's crisp, flesh-dense patties, with their tingling sauces, are above average. A potentially good dish was braised beef over saffron risotto with roasted red pepper coulis, rosemary gravy and "pureed herbs." Taken individually, all ingredients were fine, but the moat of coulis surrounding the risotto overwhelmed the plate and the risotto's taste. The braised beef itself was perfect, although the "pureed herbs," identified as chimichurri on the website, eluded me. A third entrée, Wayne's homey four-cheese ravioli, seemed very "Aiken" with the creamy pockets of cheese topped with a roasted red pepper and garlic sauce that was dotted with bits of crisp Italian sausage.

The look of Napoleon's is traditionally pub-like, with lots of dark wood and a substantial bar that specializes in craft beers. Live music is performed some nights, but I did enjoy watching a waiter on the patio snapping his fingers while Prince played.

A few doors down

It's too early for even a first look, but I have to mention a new restaurant that's at the opposite end of the strip shopping center that Napoleon's occupies. It's Sprig (2860 La Vista Road, 404-248-9700). I visited alone on Sunday evening, a few days after the restaurant opened, and I was blown away.

The restaurant belongs to Daniel Morrison, the longtime popular bar manager at Watershed. Sprig obviously doesn't have the money behind it that Napoleon's does, but, if my one taste of chef Robert Elliot's food is any indication, it's going to be a hit.

My meal included a starter of fried chicken livers with salad and toast spread with apple compote. (I want more toast.) This was followed with slices of skillet-roasted duck breast with braised cabbage and poached crab apples. Then came dessert of perfect shortcake layered with cooked apples and topped with buttermilk crème anglaise and caramel.

The restaurant has a full bar but was not yet dispensing booze when I visited.

Prices are quite reasonable (as they are at Napoleon's). I can't wait to go back. Call ahead before you go because the hours are a bit confusing.

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