First Look: Staplehouse

A visit to the Old Fourth Ward's groundbreaking new restaurant

I was flashing back to 20-plus years ago. Sitting alone at Staplehouse I faced a brick wall just as I did during my years of zen meditation. The five-course meal amplified the zen-y feel. Each course was elegantly assembled, reminding me of a Japanese kaiseki meal.

At a certain moment of my dinner, a server dropped a strange amuse-bouche on the table. It was a tan, black-striped orb traversed by a single rivulet of white piping that bordered a cluster of tiny, pale-yellow beads.

Was it an intergalactic chocolate truffle? "It's a soup dumpling," my server announced. "A bologna soup dumpling. Put the whole thing in your mouth at once." I did. The broth erupted, lubricating the outer layer of grilled bologna. Then came a sharper hit of pickled mustard seeds. Finally, there was the purely textural stripe of pureed white bread. A phoney-baloney sandwich!

Such a creation is typical of chef Ryan Smith, whose love of Southern regional cuisine and charcuterie was long displayed at Empire State South, Restaurant Eugene, and Holeman and Finch. He once told Atlanta Eats that Hugh Acheson, owner/chef of Empire, had to reel him in now and then. "Sometimes I like to do a lot of crazy shit."

I love his food's wit. The starting amuse bouche was a microscopic sliver composed of pastrami, gelled pickled beets, and a dot of crème fraîche. The risk of such food is that its complexity can result in muddled and lost flavors. Unfortunately this tasted like a pure blast of vinegar.

Staplehouse, located in a century-old brick building, is the city's first to use the Tock reservations system. To secure one of the 40 seats in the main dining room, where only the tasting menu is served, you must buy an $85-ticket with your reservation. Understand that the restaurant's net profits support the Giving Kitchen, which has donated about $500,000 to hospitality workers in crisis.

The story began in 2009 when Ryan and Jen Hidinger began hosting a supper club at their home to raise funds to open Staplehouse. Not long after, Ryan was diagnosed with cancer that killed him a year later. The restaurant community raised money to help pay the astronomical costs. That gave rise to the Giving Kitchen and, in October, Jen Hidinger, Kara Hidinger, and chef Smith turned Ryan Hidinger's dream of six years earlier into reality.

If you don't want to use Tock, just show up and try to get a seat. At the eight-seat bar, you can order the tasting menu as well as selections from a separate à la carte menu. On the large patio, you can only eat à la carte. And you can spend less than half the cost of the tasting menu.

I went ticket-less to the restaurant early on a Wednesday night and had no difficulty getting seated in the main dining room. The feast that followed was, as I said, pure zen. It would take uncountable words just to list the ingredients in Smith's menu. Here's a summary:

First course: Sunchoke custard made with impossibly tender smoked sable fish, wild juniper, fried chips of sunchoke peel and the skin of the fish, all topped with a foam made from the whey of house-made ricotta. I detest foams. I can't look at them without feeling someone has spit on my food. But all flavors were crystal clear — no small achievement for a dish including two varieties of juniper.

Second course: A gorgeous plate of shelled razor clams radiating from a shiny, slick globe of kale scattered with benne seeds, encasing gold rice containing fermented bok choy. Let's call it Chino-Charleston. Appearance-wise, this was my favorite dish, but the flavor was flawed by a bit too much fennel powder. On the side: little billowy benne crackers.

Third course: Three styles of carrots with dense duck confit and two purple nasturtium blooms, adding a faint peppery and, of course, flowery taste. I loved this dish and I don't even like carrots! The only flaw was an encounter with some annoyingly super-chewy meat, but, hey, that's a nice textural contrast to the carrots. My fave overall.

Fourth course: Unbelievably tender ribeye cooked sous-vide then tossed in a hot pan, served with orange sweet potatoes straight-up and a purée of white sweet potatoes. There's more: preserved maitake and matsutake mushrooms in different forms. I couldn't keep up. Weirdly, this was my least favorite dish. The rest of the menu is obviously focused on far lighter dishes and this seemed like a too-heavy blow to the palate. Personally, I would have preferred a fish dish, but I get the point and it was probably the best treatment of ribeye I can recall in recent years.

Fifth course: A mercifully light dessert of a small rectangle of two layers. Flavors included candied squash and apple, with a sizable dollop of "milk jam" on the side. The kinky touch was a few wood sorrel leaves that added a vaguely sour note. Then, as if the dessert were not enough, I was presented with a white-chocolate truffle. It did not encase bologna.

I know that some foodies will complain that Smith overreaches, but I prefer chefs who take risks. You'll experience no risks with the superb servers, who could thoroughly describe every dish. That's some impressive memorizing. I did not sample the à la carte menu, whose dishes look to be similar. Please try the oysters with popcorn butter and let me know. Have a zen-derful time.

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