Richard Blais brings cheap fun to Poncey-HighlandMonday November 28, 2011 09:00 am EST
I understand the merit of a good burger. A good burger, at its best, is a celebration of grease and meat: the mighty, juicy yawp of carnivorism and calorific glory. I get it. But I'm more of a hot dog gal.
That is to say, I will eat a nasty hot dog from a gas station, but I will not eat a nasty hamburger from Wendy's. While the perverse trend of putting everything and anything on a burger seemed tired to me about as soon as it began, the hot dog is primed for such treatment. It's part of the hot dog's inherent nature to have ridiculous toppings. Ballparks around the country base their very identities on the specifics of what sits atop their wieners.
Burgers may have been forced into a whirlwind of silliness that chefs deemed "fun," but hot dogs are fun. And who else to tackle the fun potential of tube meat than our own maestro of whimsy, Richard Blais?
I don't really have to tell you about Richard Blais, do I? Here's the truncated version: He came to Atlanta and wowed us with his zany cooking; he oversaw a number of exciting restaurants that ultimately failed; he left for Miami then came back and went to work at Element; he appeared on "Top Chef" and almost won; he went to work for Tom Catherall at Home but didn't stick around long; he wrote a column for Creative Loafing then stopped; he opened trendy burger spot Flip; he competed on "Top Chef All-Stars" and won, and now we find him here, with HD1, his haute doggery (his words, not mine). In a couple of months he'll also open the Spence along with Concentrics, a restaurant more in line with the Blaisian cooking many Atlantans have yearned for since the Element days. But for now, along with HD1 chef and longtime collaborator Jared Pyles, wieners.
HD1 sits in the heart of Poncey-Highland in a building that used to be San Francisco Coffee but now more closely resembles a design junkie's Death Star. The exterior grew a large pointy bit during construction, made of dark wood that extends toward the sky like a menacing sideways fence. Apart from that one extrusion-like appendage, the restaurant fits nicely into the neighborhood. Unlike the experience of entering Flip, walking into HD1 is not like walking into a sexed-up fantasy. It's like walking into a hipster hot dog joint.
Art-rock will be playing as you peruse the menu, writ large on a board just beyond the entrance. The sleek fence theme extends indoors, with polished wood beams and lighter wood slab tables extending down the rectangular room. You order at the cash register and then proceed to a table. If you want full service, it's available at the 12-seat bar, although I find the tables more comfortable. Runners deliver the food, often quicker than seems possible. The good news is, most of what they bring is delightful.
I love the chicken liver appetizer, although I wish they'd use livers large enough to stand up to the super-crunchy crust. Regardless, the crust is masterful, and the vinegar-heavy hot sauce is good for drenching everything on the plate, including the funky, flavorful mustard greens. Shrimp fried in grits is basically high-class fair food — skewers of large shrimp coated in a grits batter and fried till they resemble a corn dog. They're almost disconcertingly creamy, but in a good way.
Sausages are made in-house or by outside vendors with HD1's recipes, and they are the true achievement of this restaurant. Each makes a case for itself, the pork sausages juicy and meaty, the hot dogs with the appropriate snap and nitrate tang. Buttery toasted squares of brioche buns make for a sturdy and tasty base for the assortment of sausages they envelop. My favorites include the fennel sausage with grilled radicchio, ketchup and fontina, which delivers an amalgamation of prickly Italian flavors, bitter and sweet and meaty, and the merguez, a dusky lamb sausage with currants, minted cucumber relish and yogurt. The bouncy red haute dog is topped with Vidalia onions, pepper jack foam, and chili that rides the proper line between slutty and upscale. The pleasure in this place falls squarely in that precarious realm, the balance between astute cooking and unabashed entertainment.
Here's the thing about HD1: When playing a game this wacky, some things are bound to fall flat. The North African boiled peanuts taste like vegan food circa 1983, all salt and uncooked spices and peanut moosh. The lemon curd Szechuan peppercorn chicken wings are too sweet and too oily. The Louisiana lobster dog, which is actually crawfish salad, has an odd, chemical aftertaste. There's a hash of ox tongue and tripe that will not convert any offal distrusters and might be a hard sell to the offal lovers among us (it's a touch wet-dog for me). But for the most part the sausages are well-made, the accompanying flavors are clever and tasty, and the food is fun. Remember fun? I like fun. Especially cheap fun. And that's another one of HD1's strengths. It's easy for two people to eat here for $20, $30 if you stuff yourself silly.
My biggest complaint has less to do with food and atmosphere and more to do with service, or the lack thereof. It's not a function of rudeness or attitude or ineptitude as much as it is the by-product of a cool idea to streamline dining. I can see the smarts in the order-at-the-counter setup, but it makes for an odd, too quick, too lonely dining experience. After ordering, the only person you're likely to encounter is the food runner. They'll ask you if they can get you anything else, but really, what could they get you? If you decide you want dessert or another drink, you have to get up and order it from the counter, pay again, etc. It makes for a dinner experience that lasts around 30 minutes, and leaves those of us who usually drink three beers with dinner unlikely to do so. A chef I encountered one night while I was eating at HD1 said, "I wish there was more of a service presence on the floor, it would make me feel more welcome."
I wish that as well, especially at dinner. I also wish for a wine list that was as quirky as the menu, and a beer list that went beyond the cute gimmick of everything-in-cans. This is a place I'd come to hang out with friends and drink if the setup didn't make it so hard to do so. Yes, you can sit at the bar and get full service, but I'm talking after-work drinks and nibbles with a group, which would not be easy at this bar.
That said, I hope HD1 survives and thrives. We could all use more cheap, fun wieners in our lives.