First Look: Smoke Ring
A look inside Castleberry Hill's new barbecue house
Whether you're a Fox Bros. purist or are a fan of the rough-edged dives that pepper the city (we're looking at you, Fat Matt's), you probably have a preferred barbecue joint on lock. A new addition to the scene, therefore, is inevitably met with some incredulity. But if you're a fan of good 'cue, there's a new place you ought to know about. And it's worth the drive the Castleberry Hill — even if the Falcons aren't playing.
Smoke Ring is the newest offering from 101 Concepts restaurant group, the same gang that brought Cibo e Beve and all the Meehan's to the Atlanta cityscape. Fans of the aforementioned will find certain touches tying these places together: hardwoods everywhere, approachable craft cocktails, and a penchant for tasty grub that breaks the mold just enough to please the traditionalists while intriguing the foodies. And Castleberry. Why not? It has a chill, artsy vibe, so kudos for rolling the dice on a location that's a little off the beaten track.
Inside, saloon and brickyard come to an industrial intersection as bonfire and charred meat engulf your senses. A forest of reclaimed wood fills the one-room space, anchored by a fun, semi-private gazebo booth in the center. Small touches like Edison bulbs, barstools and chairs with a hint of steampunk, Mason jars, and bits of moonshine machinery fill out the sprawling place. Rockabilly would feel right at home on the window-side stage once night falls, so keep an eye out for a lineup of small acoustic acts with a regional tone once the place gets a little more established.
Smoke Ring is helmed by chef Jordan Wakefield, who cut his teeth rising through the ranks in Atlanta's kitchens and most recently worked at Meehan's Downtown. Wakefield's menu is a love letter to his Southern culinary heritage, but taken up the culinary ladder a few rungs. There is a laundry list of sharable apps to start you off. Deviled eggs are smoky-sweet bites of heaven, with bacon, bourbon marmalade, and green onion. Pig ear "fries" are brought outside the South, dusted with chipotle and accompanied with the restaurant's signature Guinness mustard barbecue sauce (sharp and a little bitter, you'll want to steal a bottle and put it on everything).
A half-dozen slider section is where Wakefield allows himself to stray from the traditional barbecue mold. The Dirty Bird is a mini beef patty topped with a slab of nutty foie gras, a disc of fried cheese, and spicy jalapeño marmalade. It's rich, hits you like a truck, and is a refreshing take on the oft-overdone slider. There are seven or so gussied-up sandwiches on the menu and even a random burrito, but heaping plates of tasty meat are king. If you can't decide, a two-meat/two-sides platter slims down the choices. The juicy pulled pork and tender beef brisket pair nicely. On one visit, Smoke Ring's baby back was so tender, each bite melted in my mouth before I even started chewing. The half chicken was a little dry, but smoked clear to the bone and nothing a generous squirt of spicy, vinegary ancho chile barbecue sauce couldn't fix. In fact, there are a variety of sauces to paint your meat with, including a classic sweet barbecue sauce and an Alabama white variety made with vinegar, mayo, and cayenne pepper.
But barbecue is also about sides, which unfortunately came up a little hit-and-miss. The hock collards were bland, relying too heavily on vinegar for flavor (where's the hock?). The potato salad lost the blue cheese and bacon in chewiness and bitter tang. A muffin of dry jalepeño and bacon cornbread also fell flat, missing the train on its namesake flavors.
On the other hand, the baked beans were heavenly. Laced with burnt pork and molasses, they'd be a strong competitor at Chomp and Stomp. Crispy Brussels sprouts drizzled with maple syrup were an unexpected but tasty combination. And the creamy, gooey three-cheese macaroni was sharp and smooth — reason enough for a second visit.
Wakefield's wife, Erin, handles the bar. (They met at Meehan's — ain't that cute?) There's something admirable about a barkeep who can whip up a refreshing seasonal belt with rye, orange bitters, and Luxardo (Whistlin' Pig), and one who decides to mix boiled peanut juice with flavored vodka and call it a drink (Boiled Peanut Martini). Erin does both. In general, moonshine, flavored vodkas, and house-infused bourbon are the inspirations for the adventurous but approachable cocktail list. Seasonal additions like farmers market cherries and fresh prickly pear purée drive the point home.
In Atlanta, we love our in-and-out, barbecue-for-the-sake-of-barbecue dives. But Smoke Ring is not one of those places. Instead, it's a bold but casual take on a classic concept in a city where bold takes on the classics have become the norm. Smoke Ring succeeds as a welcome addition to a neighborhood that needs some welcome additions. If stepping up your barbecue game, and stepping out of your Midtown comfort zone, sounds appealing, Smoke Ring is worth a visit. And if "lipstick on a pig" is a euphemism for slow-roasted pork with a craft cocktail, then so be it.