First Look: The General Muir (1)
Chef Todd Ginsberg and West Egg Cafe's new Jewish deli plusMonday March 11, 2013 10:30 am EDT
Many years ago, there was a deli near the border of Buckhead and Vinings called Snack 'N Shop. The 43-year-old establishment, which closed in 1996, seemed destined to be the last great Jewish deli in Atlanta. For years, displaced New Yorkers, fellow Jewish Atlantans, and anyone who loves a good nosh whined that a memorable pastrami sandwich was impossible to find in our town. Well, it seems someone was listening and taking notes: the people behind West Egg Café, Ben and Jennifer Johnson.
Enter the General Muir, which is named after the boat that brought Jennifer's grandparents and mother to the States after they survived the Holocaust. The Johnsons partnered with West Egg manager Shelly Sweet and chef Todd Ginsberg, formerly of Bocado, to create a classic deli that's also a great New American restaurant.
During the day, natural light floods in through the huge windows that dominate the General Muir's corner space at Emory Point. At night, traces of ambient light from the restaurant's weird strip-mall surroundings — Ann Taylor LOFT and JoS. A. Bank are neighbors across the street — boost the warm glow cast by large orbs suspended from the ceiling. Large mirrors treated with whatever it is that makes mirrors look old-fashioned are positioned throughout and make the room seem grander. Black and white dominate the color palette with the occasional shiny pop of the old-school brass table dividers. Gleaming white subway tiles line the walls. Seating is a mix of light wood tables flanked by glossy black chairs and booths fashioned with dark wood and worn leather. Little framed black-and-white photos lend a touch of nostalgia on whichever wall they are placed. Roomy bar stools offer even the broadest of bottoms a comfortable place to settle in for an unorthodox cocktail, a glass of wine from a pedestrian list, or a cappuccino made with Batdorf & Bronson beans. Every seat, however, offers a view into the glass-enclosed kitchen. The openness flows into itself and it's all very deli Zen.
Ginsberg is a classically trained French chef who has worked under global culinary greats such as Alain Ducasse. He says he was drawn to the concept because his parents were avid deli-goers and he always wanted to try his hand at creating similar fare. Lunch and brunch attract large crowds and the eatery's no-reservation policy during these times can translate into long waits. The deli counter tucked in a corner at the end of the bar is first-come, first-serve. It offers pared-down service and a full menu — not to mention a crazy-tempting deli case complete with homemade matzoh balls, made-to-order sandwiches such as beef on weck, citrusy black-and-white cookies, and perhaps the best cheesecake in Atlanta thanks to former Miller Union pastry chef Lauren Raymond. Raymond makes everything except for the H&F Bread Co. breadbasket appetizer and crusty, double-baked rye bread, which is sourced from Alon's.
Breakfast offers delicate dishes like poached eggs served over grits alongside roasted mushrooms and toast sticks. Bagels are a work in progress but respectable as are the schmears — especially the one with scallions and briny capers. The Avenue A — a bagel topped with nova, cream cheese, wedges of avocado, grapefruit, cucumber, onion, and dill — has become a fast favorite among regulars. Chopped liver made creamy and smooth with duck fat arrives with triangular slabs of pretzel bread encrusted with caramelized onions. Lacy and crisp latkes fried in schmaltz remain creamy on the inside. A hot, fatty, salty, crunchy, and gooey Reuben is matched in decadence only by the Muir's poutine piled high with homemade french fries, chicken gravy, curds, and optional pastrami if you're feeling devilish. The broth of the matzo ball soup is clear and virtually fat-free, but lacking a little extra heart to rival Grandma's or Mom's.
Reservations are taken for dinner, which is still the undiscovered gem at this deli-plus. At night, the Muir morphs into a brasserie where you can get a pastrami sandwich, a raw kale salad tossed with green goddess dressing, or a deftly crafted pasta dish such as the prune-stuffed gnocchi sauced with oxtail ragu and decorated with pulled Brussels sprouts leaves and tender slices of carrots cut on the bias. Even vegetarians aren't forgotten with choices such as the incredibly satisfying mix of cauliflower paired with charred eggplant, stewed lentils richened with ghee and a bracingly tangy yogurt sauce. Fish lovers will revel in the exceptional pan-crisped trout. And, yes, Bocado burger stack devotees, there is a burger and it is good.
While the Muir hits all the notes a deli should, it aspires to be more than that according to Jennifer Johnson. "In New York, delis are like a secular synagogue," she says. "Like a brasserie in France or a pub in Ireland, we wanted to create a space where you could start and end your day." If I may be so bold, Johnson and her compatriots have done just that and more as the General Muir is quite possibly the most exciting and unique — not to mention, affordable — restaurant to open in recent memory. And even if you don't feel that way, it is, without a doubt, the greatest Jewish deli in Atlanta today.