Last updated on February 9th, 2015
“Ugh, I have to go to Atlanta for work next week and I don’t know what I’m going to eat,” my dad complained.
Dad. Say no more. It’s true that downtown Atlanta is still largely populated by expense-account steakhouses and fine-dining chains, but it’s outside the professional epicenter where things get exciting: throughout the neighborhoods of the sprawling city, from Buckhead’s Holeman & Finch to Decatur’s Cakes & Ale to midtown’s Empire State South to JCT. Kitchen in the Westside Urban Market, Atlanta food is a prime example of a revitalized, modern Southern town.
Though it’s the first and oldest Atlanta-area restaurant from now-ubiquitous chef Ford Fry (who also runs the super-popular seafood spot The Optimist and the Italian-influenced No. 246, and opens his next place, Buckhead’s King + Duke, next week), JCT. Kitchen ain’t showing its age. Even at the early-bird hour of 5:30 pm, tables were quickly filling in the elegant but unstuffy dining room, wrapped in whitewashed woods and ample windows framed by billowing curtains that shaded us from the setting sun.
And though the modern Southern standards on the menu—fried chicken, shrimp and grits, as well as the hazelnut-studded Brussels sprouts—came highly recommended by many, this Northerner, feeling flush on the first warm day she’d felt all year, was leaning toward a smorgasbord of appetizers as her meal instead of one big blowout dish. Cracking open a bottle of Albarino with my lady-dates, I cleared the table for a parade of seasonal specials.
Well, deviled eggs topped with slivers of Benton’s country ham were a concession to tradition, because, honestly, who can resist a deviled egg? (Don’t answer that if you can in fact resist; just hand over the egg so I can eat it.) Some of my table-mates professed to be anti-fried oyster, which sounded like crazy talk—I mean, I typically prefer them raw to savor their full oceanic flavor, but come on, you’re basically ordering the fried version for the breading. JCT’s version sold me based on the tiny crunchy pickled bits scattered on top and creamy, herby dressing below, which played off the golden crunchy coating surrounding (and, yes, sigh, frankly masking the taste of) each oyster. Mission accomplished with the haters.
Dishes that played to seasonal strengths instead of paying homage to any particular Southern dish worked equally well. Tiny, glistening strawberries—the first of the season for me—were juicy, sweet surprises against the shallot vinaigrette on an otherwise simple farmer’s salad; on the flip side, massive chunks of hen of the woods mushrooms came in a bubbling crock of creamy sauce with oozing eggs. Even with toast to sop it up, this appetizer was rich and filling enough to finish as an entree.
Besides, we had to order more than one dessert: the day’s special hand pies, deep-fried half-moons no more than 3 inches long, were filled to the brim with lemon curd and accompanied by a coconut-cream milkshake (and though we were splitting everything three ways, Michelle and Lauren graciously let me drink the whole milkshake). And in one more concession to Southern classics, three forks left no speck of the peanut pie—whole peanuts hanging out on top of a brown sugar filling, served with Coca-Cola reduction. (Just like dropping a peanut into your Coke; get it?)
Easing our oyster, ham, and pie-filled bellies, we strolled through the rest of the market complex, where the restaurant’s second floor balcony groaned with the weight of what seemed like half the residents of Atlanta out in force on a breezy Saturday night. A sign pointing the way back into JCT reading “REALLY GOOD STUFF” could have easily announced the same thing to visitors arriving from the airport. Just give them a bib and some rental car keys and send them on their way.