First Look: Southbound

The newcomer charts an ambitious course in Chamblee

It may be just a restaurant, but Southbound seems to have captured the hopes and dreams of the city of Chamblee. This little city of 15,000 has been on the precipice of reinvigoration for years now, with major developments always on the horizon. If you've talked to folks around town, you've likely heard a sense of cautious yet energetic optimism — things are going to be grand. Southbound, an ambitious Southern restaurant rising from the sparsely populated storefronts of downtown Chamblee, has helped fuel this slow-burning hope.

The restaurant's original fall 2012 opening got pushed back, and pushed back again. Turns out bringing the old bones of a former Masonic Lodge back to life as a restaurant is a complex endeavor. But the community had faith in industry veteran Dennis Lange (of 5 Seasons Brewing and the well-remembered Yakitori Den Chan before that) and local businessman Mike Plummer. Southbound finally opened in late May.

From the packed room of people inside to the name of the restaurant to the menu itself, Southbound reflects its Southern roots. Across the street from the railway lines that run through town, the dining room is a long shotgun expanse of old wood and brick, warm yellow bulbs hanging throughout, and copper kettle pots turned upside down into chandeliers above the bar. Trains rattle by, blowing their horns, taking in a quick whiff of meat smoking from Southbound's patio full of Big Green Eggs. Bouncy blues and jazz fill the air, helping lock in the casual and elegantly crafty vibe. Think South City Kitchen meets Local Three and you'll be pretty close.

Southbound's kitchen is helmed by Ryan J. Smith (formerly of Watershed), and the offerings take slightly different directions depending on the time of day. The casual lunch menu has soups, salads, sandwiches, and few large plates like shrimp and grits or steak frites. Southbound transitions to a short bar menu between lunch and dinner — I'm eager to give their hot chicken a shot — and dinnertime brings out dishes with more heft. Here the small plates get more diverse and less solidly Southern, with forays into fancy vegetables (beet carpaccio strewn with figs and blue cheese) or a de rigueur grilled octopus. The entrées span from simple meat-centricity — whole grilled chicken, a half rack of lamb, a massive rib-eye — to more chef-y options like rabbit with ricotta dumplings. There's even valet at night — mainly to help the crowds get in and out rather than due to any lack of parking.

At lunchtime, the wood-grilled grouper BLT was exactly what it promised, and nothing more (and a bit meager for the $14 fee). A crispy kale salad, though, raised the bar with an intriguing interplay of textures — crunchy baked kale on top, creamy avocado folded in, crisp fennel, the salty tang of crumbled feta, and firm farro mixed up in between. It wasn't truly Southern, but it delivered some true excitement.

At dinner, safe choices like pan-roasted grouper or the grilled half rack of lamb turned out a bit timid, slightly overcooked, and in need of seasoning. Much better was the immense and assertively peppery smoked, bone-in short rib (short? It's about 10 inches long) with herb spaetzle, vinegary mustard greens, and a dry rub packing plenty of flavor. Most of the smoky beef falls right off the bone, but there's also a nice strip of meat approximating burnt ends clinging tight, offering a nice crunch.

Southbound's wine list is anything but safe. It's heavily European, packed with fun varietals like Grüner and Godello and Gamay, all chosen by Eric Brown of nearby Le Caveau Fine Wine. Likewise, the beers on tap and by the bottle go beyond the basics. If you're into the floral and unusual, opt for a bottle of Stillwater's Of Love & Regret saison, brewed with chamomile, heather, and lavender for a pleasingly intricate palate.

The dish that impressed the most though assembled an eclectic cast of ingredients: mushroom toast with soy, rosemary, fromage blanc, and preserved lemon. The pretty plate arrived with a single long slice of lightly toasted, still-soft baguette, loaded up with a tangle of mixed mushrooms and accented by bright, sliced radish and dots of yellow lemon zest. The warm soft bread, the smooth spread of fromage blanc, and the meaty umami-bomb mushrooms all melted together wonderfully. And though I would have liked a bit more from the preserved lemon, any complaints were minor quibbles. If this is where Southbound is headed, I'm fully on board and eager for the destination ahead.

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