New Southern locavorism at downtown's Ellis Hotel
"Well just so you know, we are a farm-to-table restaurant," our server chirps as we peruse the menu at Terrace in the Ellis Hotel. "We do support all of the farms you see on the right of the menu and 25 of the 27 are local." It's the same spiel I've had all three times I've visited Terrace, and it makes me somewhat nostalgic for the days when this seemed noteworthy, this dedication to and reliance upon local produce. These days, farm-to-table is so ubiquitous, a restaurant can open with a rabid devotion to the earth and its gifts and go almost completely unnoticed.
Terrace opened in the Ellis in September of 2009, replacing the hotel's original restaurant, the E Street Grill. The space on the second floor shares the hotel's calm, elegant and slightly bland vibe. The highlight is undoubtedly the fern-bedecked namesake terrace balcony, which recalls dining in New Orleans on one of that city's iconic terraces, except here you're looking out over the decidedly less romantic visage of Peachtree Street.
When Terrace opened, Michel Nischan, chef of Connecticut's Dressing Room (which he opened with Paul Newman in 2006) and founder of the sustainable food nonprofit Wholesome Wave, was brought on as a consultant to help steer the new restaurant's direction. Unsurprisingly, the direction he chose was one focused on local and sustainable products. A locavore restaurant in the heart of downtown, operating out of one of the city's trendiest hotels? Atlanta barely blinked.
This spring, original chef Thomas McKeown was replaced by Jon Wolf, whose history in Atlanta includes stints at South City Kitchen, the Food Studio, and Restaurant Eugene. Wolf is turning out a menu that will look familiar to anyone well-versed in New Southern cuisine: Shrimp and grits, pork belly, pan-seared Georgia trout. And as with much of that cuisine, there are high points of cultural smarts and low points of fusion confusion.
One thing for which Terrace should be praised heartily is the kitchen's meat-free dishes. Unlike the tired vegetable plates and omnipresent field greens, Wolf's vegetarian creations are made with true thought. A tofu entrée, coated in herbs and crunchy breading and served over a risotto-like smoosh of Carolina Gold rice, sugar snap peas, carrots and almonds, was pleasing and perplexing. Part 1950s rice-n-veggies one-pot wonder, part nuevo vegan creativity, the lack of spice or Asian influence both frustrated and charmed me. Here is a dish that sits squarely in the camp of Americana, looking to the best of rice casserole and straightforward seasonality to achieve its goals. I'd order it again for its buoyancy and crunch, its silky center, and for its honest rice and veggie seduction.
There are a couple of creative vegetarian appetizers, including a mushroom pâté, served with fun pickled blueberries and H&F Bread Co. rye toast. The pâté had an earthy appeal, besmirched as it was by a load of truffle oil, and a mousse-like texture. Another appetizer of pearl barley risotto with wild mushrooms and wilted arugula was oddly bland — a problem that popped up with some frequency over the course of my meals at Terrace. A generous portion of Bloody Mary clams lacked salt, and Louisiana crawfish in chili-lime butter failed to leave much of an impression.
But a pork belly appetizer, served with a jalapeño cornbread waffle touched on all the right notes, both on the palate and culturally. Unlike the usual, and somewhat tired, presentation of pork belly as a fatty bacon block, Wolf serves his like a chop or cutlet, allowing for more surface area to become crisp and golden. The cornbread waffle had all the sweetness of its corn base, encased in crackly salty edges. It's an indulgent way to start a meal, but one that employs enough balance to avoid feeling gratuitous. The dish holds references to a number of classic Southern preparations, but manages to be original and playful as well.
On the other side of the spectrum was a Niman Ranch pork chop entrée that also nods to Southern tradition with pecans and a sorghum glaze, alongside smashed English peas and baby carrots. The sorghum's overwhelming sweetness permeated everything on the plate, including the smashed peas, which took on a disturbing dessert-like, baby food quality.
Terrace aims to be much more than a hotel restaurant and business lunch spot, but even so, the burger, that staple of room service and expense account lunches, is important. And Terrace serves a fine burger, grass-fed but still juicy and flavorful, piled with smoked bacon, lettuce and Flat Creek Lodge cheddar.
The irony of the lack of interest surrounding this restaurant over the past couple years is that Terrace is far more serious about hyper-local ingredients than many of the venues that rode the trend to stardom in the first place. Terrace's waiters and PR people go so far as to claim that everything on the menu is local, although I find that difficult to believe — I don't know where one would source local blood orange, for instance. But there's no doubt that the restaurant is making an earnest attempt to highlight the best Georgia has to offer, both in terms of its produce and its emerging cuisine. In a part of town that's a bit of a wasteland for decent dining, Terrace, with its lofty ambitions, is fully worthy of our attention.