Restaurant Review: Wrecking Bar Brewpub
Chef Terry Koval makes farm-to-table affordable at the Inman Park brewpub
Everyone needs a go-to restaurant up her sleeve, a place that satisfies a wide variety of tastes, ages, and backgrounds. The Wrecking Bar Brewpub is that kind of place. I can take anyone for almost any occasion. On a normal night you might see tables filled with couples catching up with friends, giggly, prom-bound teens in formalwear, or young families with visiting grandparents. This is largely attributable to the restaurant's friendly, neighborhood vibe, but also the grassroots guidance of chef/partner Terry Koval.
Given all of the new construction in Atlanta these days, it's bizarre to have dinner in a beautiful historic building. Built in 1900 by architect Willis F. Denny as Atlanta Terra Cotta Company founder Victor Kriegshaber's family home, the former Inman Park residence was named "the Marianna" after Kriegshaber's daughter, Marian. The late Victorian style mansion with its ornate, circular façade was once the Centenary Methodist Protestant Church. It has also been the Jack Rand Dance Studio, Wrecking Bar Architectural Antiques, and now a brewpub. Owners Bob and Kristine Sandage put a lot of work into opening back in 2011. Bob did many of the renovations, managing to preserve historic details such as the groovy portrait of a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Zsa Zsa Gabor.
A restaurant in the basement of a 115-year-old home could easily be cold and cave-like, but Wrecking Bar's dining room is almost always bustling and warm. The process of being greeted and seated has occasionally made me feel like I was interrupting a group of chatty, disaffected teens, but the pub's competent waitstaff — ranging from bubbly, college-age kids to laid-back beer dudes — make up for the brusque encounters.
Koval, who has worked at places like Farm Burger and Canoe, is a farmer junkie. Just look at the long list of growers he sources from printed on Wrecking Bar's ever-changing menu. The chef is constantly adding new dishes or tweaking the existing ones based on what farmers harvest each week. A recent special of intensely orange compressed melon paired with country ham, herbed crème fraîche, and pristine basil leaves was a Southern-tinged answer to Italy's classic prosciutto with cantaloupe. The ripe melon took on an almost meaty texture, making it a lovely bedfellow to the salty ham.
The excellent kale cheese fondue is the baseline dish I order whenever I'm with first-timers. Koval gets incredible, dark brown pretzels from Bernhard's Bread Bakery in Marietta that serve as a vehicle for the beer-spiked blend of aged Gouda, sharp cheddar, and a touch of kale. Pristine raw baby carrots, turnips, and thin asparagus come on the side for dipping.
Sneaking vegetables and other good things into places you wouldn't expect is a theme in Koval's cooking. A beet purée folded into the ground-to-order beef heart tartare paired well with the meat's iron notes and exaggerated its deep red hue. Wrecking Bar's charcuterie program includes everything from oxtail terrine to peppery Hungarian sausage. When Koval prepares a charcuterie board, he often incorporates pickled vegetables and other local goodies to create unexpected, beautiful landscapes of meat, cheese, and produce.
On a recent night, silky and delicate shrimp and scallop dumplings tossed with hakurei turnips, shiitake mushrooms, and snap peas were served in a pool of rust-colored, spicy shrimp broth. Despite the dish's saltiness, bites of the tender vegetables kept flavors earthy and balanced. The kitchen seems to struggle with its use of salt. Too much was the undoing of an otherwise excellent cheeseburger — a very popular item given how many I spotted on tables over the course of my visits. A lack of salt was the downfall of what should have been a very good asparagus risotto made with barley instead of Arborio rice. A juicy and hulking bone-in Riverview Farms pork chop slathered with miso-peach sauce was laid atop a smear of peach butter and glistening fried rice rendered funky and tangy with Brussels sprout kimchi.
Wrecking Bar's kids' menu has staples like chicken fingers and fries, but there are also surprises such as crispy trout. Here, a side of veggies for kids is not just nuked corn, but a small cast-iron dish full of fresh lady peas, hakurei turnips, and carrots. The fruit side on a recent visit was a small mason jar of sliced peaches. I am not sure who was happier, my daughter or myself, as she nibbled on the ripe summer fruit and a mini burger on an H&F Bread Co. roll.
Dessert is chef de cuisine Jeremiah Weston's domain. A native of Tennessee and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University, Weston worked at the Inn at Blackberry Farm and under Sean Brock before coming to the Wrecking Bar. If there is pie on the menu, order it. A slice of his creamy buttermilk pie was a sweet and simple love letter to Southern desserts.
Wrecking Bar is one of the rare brewpubs where the food outshines the booze. Many of the beers I've sampled here over the years lack the body and complexity to stand up to Koval's superior cooking. Brewmaster Neal Engleman's light Sea Shanty Gose is a salty, traditional German-style beer made with salt from local purveyor Beautiful Briny Sea. I appreciate the local touch, but ultimately the beer tasted watery. I have had better luck exploring managing partner Stevenson Rosslow's impressive whiskey list, but the four cocktails I tried were cloying to the point of undrinkable.
Even with small service and seasoning issues, Wrecking Bar has become an ace up my sleeve. It's not perfect, but the prices — nothing on the menu costs more than $26 — make Wrecking Bar one of the most affordable, chef-driven, farm-to-table restaurants in town. Koval is an example of the best kind of local chef, one who is deeply invested in the surrounding food community. And, if the consistent crowds are any indication, the community is just as into him. (3 out of 5 stars)