First Look: Better Half
PushStart Kitchen's second act beginsMonday February 10, 2014 04:00 am EST
It's an age-old story: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, open a restaurant in a Costa Rican beach town, move to Atlanta and start a cozy underground supper club, cultivate raving fans, then launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the opening of a full-on restaurant. OK, so maybe this is a slightly contemporized version of the classic boy-meets-girl story, but it's a classic nonetheless.
Better Half is the newest endeavor from PushStart Kitchen chef Zach Meloy. Originally from Marietta, Meloy spent five years after culinary school soaking in the cuisine of Latin America, where he met and wooed wife/partner/GM Cristina in Costa Rica. Like Meloy, Better Half's food is a child of the modern South. There are trendy treats such as crunchy pig ear strips atop smoky charred broccoli, and dishes such as seared scallops over rice grits and chunks of ham hock. Rich guajillo pepper and crisp masa accents are nods to the restaurant's Latin American roots. Even the name Better Half calls upon the Meloys' time in Costa Rica, where their restaurant was called Media Naranja, which translates as "half an orange," but has a more colloquial meaning along the lines of "your better half."
The restaurant is located off 14th Street in the Westside neighborhood of Home Park. It's also the latest in a long line of Atlanta restaurants to focus on Southern-leaning, fine dining food in a casual setting. (Despite Better Half's ultra-homey feel, entrées range in price from $19-$29.) The space has a comfortable, welcoming vibe that echoes PushStart Kitchen: exposed brick walls, family photos, plenty of warm reclaimed wood, and open bookshelves stacked with plates. While the communal table that was the hallmark of the Meloys' supper club is gone, Meloy and fellow cook Jonathan Miller like to keep close contact with the guests. Better Half's tiny open kitchen takes up one wall of the room and is surrounded by a bar with seats for 10 lucky diners.
Almost every dish on the brief menu (four appetizers, five entrées, four desserts) takes a small risk, teetering on the edge of expectations, though none is ever in danger of a great fall. A combo of roasted and raw beets seems commonplace around town this winter, but Meloy makes it his own with playful touches such as white slivers of candied fennel and bright green dollops of cool Greek goddess dressing. Almost everything that hits the table is an artful composition of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures. The gnocchi, for instance, uses rust red guajillo sauce as the backdrop for plump clouds of pasta, arugula, and a tender tangle of earthy braised wagyu oxtail.
The menu, which is written nightly, is driven by the season's and Meloy's vivid imagination. He swears not a single dish has been repeated during PushSart's two-year run and Better Half's two months. Only Meloy's "silk handkerchief" pasta, the dish he cooked for Cristina on their first date, remains on the menu. Wide ribbons of pasta are wrapped around wild mushroom confit, topped with a crimson burst of tomato marmalade, Cotija cheese, and whole leaves of bright green basil.
Desserts are excellent for a place without a pastry chef. Most are homey spins on bready sweets like tres leches cake or French toast, but with fancy touches such as candied beets or poufs of blowtorch-toasted meringue. My favorite was a powerful curry ice cream paired with apples and a warm white chocolate bread pudding. Hopefully, with time, more exciting ingredients such as the imperceptible bourbon in the bourbon milk over hot chocolate tres leches cake will come through as well as that curry. So far, Better Half is BYOB (no charge). When the time comes, expect a focused list of mostly Spanish and South American wines, plus a few local craft beers.
One evening, as I was wrapping up a meal at the bar and chatting with Meloy, he said, "This is like my house. Hanging out and feeding folks is why we did this." Then he handed me a plate containing the check and a few buttery Costa Rican milk truffles — an after-dinner tradition carried over from PushStart. It's a lovely gesture, and yet another reminder that Better Half is more than just a restaurant. It's a story unfolding.