First Look: The Pinewood Tippling Room

At the intersection of funnel cake and fried bologna

Wednesday June 27, 2012 04:00 am EDT

Inside the Pinewood Tippling Room, oversized chalkboards line the wall touting nightly specials. The board closest to the entrance exhibits meticulous chalk sketches evoking the nostalgic and outdoorsy. Recent examples include a wood-grain pocketknife, a fly-fishing lure, and a 10-point buck. Comfy, cross-back wooden stools line the bar, and like the space's previous occupant, Cakes & Ale, the Pinewood is sparsely decorated. The minimalism is purposeful, allowing the handsome bar to take center stage. The huge slab of local pinewood, tables, stools, and muted bluish-gray walls offer an elegant space for socializing. Bustling dinner shifts can get pretty loud as the well-dressed after-work crowd packs in around sunset. As Decatur's newest see-and-be-seen hot spot, expect a short wait between 7:30 and 8 p.m. But despite the frenetic, and at times chaotic, vibe make no mistake: The joy here is, for the most part, found in eating and, yes, tippling.

Given its name, perhaps it's best to start by discussing what you imbibe instead of what you eat. To tipple, after all, is to drink liquor especially by habit or to excess.

T. Fable Jeon's revivalist cocktails are imaginative and chock-full of homemade ingredients like roasted Georgia pecan tincture and house star anise and grapefruit soda. The menu of signature drinks and extensive classic configurations conveys a down-home, regional spirit. A drawback of Jeon's creations is a tendency toward heavy-handed sweetness that can dominate a drink's flavor. The Hibiscus Fizz ($14) is a flowery milk shake made with hibiscus-infused gin, honey, peach preserves, orange flower water, cream, and egg white that is almost dessert-like. The Day that I Die ($11), made with Bulleit Rye, fresh lemon, ginger syrup, buckwheat honey, and pecan tincture, is an easy-drinking favorite. But the Picaresque Morning ($13), comprised of bourbon, pine nut orgeat, and grated nutmeg, drinks like caramel and Christmas spice — here, the sweetness is well-integrated and unimposing.

Edibles at the Pinewood are overseen by consulting chef Julia LeRoy. Whether the menu will continue to ebb and flow with new additions and deletions or eventually settle on a core lineup of dishes remains to be seen. On my second visit, I noticed that the sweet potato bombers (sweet potato purée wrapped in crispy phyllo) and an oyster dip with homemade cheese crackers had been replaced with other apps. No complaints here. When I had the dish on my first visit, I was excited, as the prospect of oyster dip foreshadowed a rich pulse of ocean and cream. In reality, the essence of seafood was barely a suggestion; the salt and brine of an oyster eclipsed by buttery, homemade Cheez-Its.

With an assortment of nine small plates and four different sliders, light grazing and table sharing is an easy way to spend an evening at the Pinewood. The fried bologna sandwich with fried green tomato and spicy egg salad ($8) is an olio of country quintessence. The bologna is thick-cut, similar in style to sliced corned beef, and sourced locally from Pine Street Market. The first time around, there was an unwelcome element of sweetness. Strangely, the spicy egg salad is decidedly sweet rather than spicy. The result: a thorn in the side of the sandwich's textural delight. After round two, however, the issue appeared to have been corrected. The fried bologna sandwich is like eating a picnic on a happy summer day. A newer offering, the Mister Crunchy sandwich ($9) also features meat from Pine Street Market — this time, country ham. Despite being softer than the name would suggest, the combination of salty ham, Swiss cheese, and nutty ricotta on grilled sourdough proves toothsome, although a slathering of jalapeño cream is mostly bark and little bite.

Highlights of the menu (and the week) are Pinewood's country poutine ($7) — a thin but peppery white gravy and a rich, tangy sauce of American cheese are served in small bowls alongside a mound of hand-cut fries. The collard green egg rolls ($7) are bittersweet and tender collards wrapped up like spring rolls and sliced in half. The creamy Vietnamese dipping sauce, I'm told, is made with rice wine vinegar, sweet chili, and sugar.

The blackened shrimp tamales ($12) are a bit of a misnomer (they're not trying to trick you, the description is clear, but I'm just saying). More accurately, the dish is a pile of creamy grits studded with a row of blackened shrimp and cradled in a corn husk "cigar." The chicken tickers ($5) are an affable little bowl of deep-fried chicken hearts. The hearts themselves aren't too chewy or soft, but once dipped in the accompanying vinegar-based Valentina hot sauce, they taste of little else.

Big plates come in a meat-and-two format, and this is where the essence of Southern dining resonates most. The crunchy buttermilk chicken and crispy fried pork chop were both moist and flavorful. An obligatory pick-four veg plate fulfills the vegetarian requirement. As for the sides, there are many and most are robust and well-executed. The macaroni and cheese and creamy cheese grits were well-seasoned and both retained a welcome bite. Collard greens were crisp and slightly sweet with little chunks of pig speckled throughout. However, country green beans were underseasoned and dangerously approaching a mush-like state.

For dessert, I could hardly resist the funnel cake ($5) topped with milky whipped cream, bananas, and dulce de leche. The ratio of topping to the knot of deep-fried, almost savory batter can be problematic, leaving the second half of the dessert saturated with moisture. The "lemon jar" ($5), a cross between a tart and a parfait layered in a mason jar, lacked in puckery citrus, but it maintained a general appeal that should please many.

After three visits to the Pinewood Tippling room, the first time just two weeks after opening, it's clear that this place will continue to get better as it finds its groove. Six weeks in, however, service remains to be the Pinewood's biggest flaw. On busy nights, ticket times for cocktails can exceed 25 minutes. On a bustling Tuesday night, our party of two went unnoticed by a busy bartender for more than five minutes — an eternity in bar time. Table service, albeit friendly and sincere, was sullied by disjointed ticket times, long absences, and seemingly forgotten items from the kitchen. As with most new establishments, service is the last thing to improve, but standards are high in the Decatur scene these days. Hopefully with time, the Pinewood will join the ranks of its elite neighbor Leon's Full Service just a few blocks away. For now, we'll tipple to our heart's content, and celebrate the early successes of the newcomer.

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