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Restaurant review: The Pig and the Pearl

Is Todd Richards' new meat and seafood joint the local, neighborhood restaurant Atlantic Station's been waiting for?

Nearly a decade after opening, Atlantic Station still struggles to find an identity beyond outdoor mall. Although, it's not for a lack of trying. In the past few years, the development has been brand building, and part of that strategy has included pursuing more local restaurateurs. Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere's Chick-a-Biddy opened at Atlantic Station in 2013. Construction began on Rosebud chef Ron Eyester's Diner last year, although it appears to have stalled since Eyester headed out to compete on "Top Chef."

Last summer, chef Todd Richards, Cindy Shera, and Todd Martin of the Shed at Glenwood opened The Pig and The Pearl, a meat and seafood restaurant. The Shed has a strong identity as a neighborhood mainstay with a dependable brunch and a strong customer base. The Pig and the Pearl teeters between fancy smokehouse and a neighborhood restaurant. It's still working on finding its place in the oddity that is Atlantic Station.

The Pig and The Pearl is pretty swanky looking on the inside. There's a big bar with drink menus written on chalkboards. Large modern-looking cages of oyster shells decorate the ceiling, and the lighting casts a warm glow around the restaurant. Each table holds a trio of barbecue and hot sauces in small glass bottles.

Richards, who grew up in Chicago, has a wealth of interesting experience when it comes to Atlanta's culinary scene. He was part of the short-lived Rolling Bones barbecue; worked at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead as the Chef de Cuisine; was executive chef at One Flew South, the Atlanta airport's first foray into upscale dining; and remains executive chef at The Shed. When the trio started putting together its new concept, it worked with Atlantic Station to identify holes in the existing offerings. The seafood and smoked meat concept is kind of unusual, but Richards says, "that's what we ate when I was growing up in Chicago. Meat and seafood."

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Starters range from crudos to buffalo pork skins to pork rillettes. Cornbread made with a recipe adapted from that of Edna Lewis would make the late Southern cooking legend proud. The accompanying mole butter, while a fun idea, was more like spicy cake frosting than a condiment I want to slather on that buttery and soft cornbread. Rib tips trimmed from the full slabs of excellent smoked pork ribs are integrated into one of the best bites of meat at the restaurant. They sit on top of grits swollen from a hefty dose of lush AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery cream. The tips are equal parts tender and chewy and pleasantly sloppy with their blanket of homemade hot sauce. Chewing on the tips reminds me of the final bites of Korean barbecue and gnawing on the leftover galbi bones gristle and all.

As odd as it seems, my favorite thing to eat here is salad. In particular, the salad of shrimp, peas, sweet chunks of lobster, and a creamy dressing heady with anise, topped with cubed cheddar cheese and a massive homemade cracker that has recently been removed from the menu. My perfect pre-movie meal is the restaurant's big kale salad with its green goddess dressing and deep-fried chunks of pork belly, perhaps with a side of the sweet-and-sour baked beans made with Sea Island red peas.

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Straightforward smoked items such as the ribs are as good as when Richards was making them at Rolling Bones, which closed in 2011 due to a fire. Richards brines his duck for nearly two days before smoking it until it's a deep mahogany. A pork shoulder sandwich looks beautiful when it arrives on a thick piece of toasted bread with a mound of arugula and slices of Asian pear. But it becomes readily apparent why this cut is typically served pulled. Presented like it is in a large hunk, the meat's richness and fattiness overwhelm. The abundance of strong spices in the mole paired with the coffee rub on the fatty lamb ribs is just too much flavor. Your palate gets fatigued. I craved a bite of something bright and acidic to cut the richness. The side of sweet potato mash takes the combination into gut bomb territory. I've had little success with the fish dishes, from an over-seasoned hamachi crudo to an otherwise promising piece of fried flounder that smelled of ammonia. But oysters always hit the spot and I could make a meal of them alone.

Much of Richards' refined hand is seen in dishes with vegetables. Richards is a Peachtree Road Farmers Market regular and often showcases vegetables as sides. Mustard greens are rarely a memorable dish, but here the tender dark folds of bitter greens bite back with loads of vinegar that is balanced out with pieces of smoky pork. Beets that deliver a soul-satisfying dose of earthy iron take a luxurious turn with a touch of ginger crema. Tender and juicy Hakurei turnips are coated with brown butter and sherry vinaigrette and finished with pieces of crisped bacon. A cluster of smoked cremini mushrooms sautéed with oyster and trumpet mushrooms are at once springy and crisp. The fat from Parmesan cheese balances out the acidity of the dish's dressing made with tart sherry vinegar and port reduction.

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Pastry chef Megan Brent, formerly of Ink and Elm, makes homey desserts with an occasional touch of whimsy such as the meringue mushroom and crushed pretzels that decorate the top of the smoky and spicy pot of chocolate. When it comes to booze, I like the beers here. The Pig and the Pearl has lots of local selections such as Orpheus and Creature Comforts Brewery out of Athens. Richards chooses the wines, and you can find good selections by the glass such as a Priorat my friend was mooning over. Cocktails, however, have been woefully unbalanced. A Negroni burned like moonshine going down. The sight of Smirnoff behind the bar seems a weird choice for well liquor at this level of a restaurant.

According to Shera, the restaurant hasn't received the traffic they anticipated and they are still trying to figure out an equation for success. I think much of that is due to the restaurant's struggle to find its place in Atlantic Station. Even I didn't know what to make of the restaurant after many visits. The restaurant has the same kind of neighborhood feel as The Shed, and that's the direction it should pursue. There are residents and plenty of people who want a useful restaurant to duck into for a post-shopping or pre-movie meal. And every community could use a neighborhood restaurant, even if that community is in an outdoor mall. (2 out of 5 stars)

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