First Look: Revival
Kevin Gillespie serves up Southern staples at his new Decatur restaurant
Kevin Gillespie does things differently. You know this if you've been to Gunshow, a restaurant so out of the ordinary that its website has to answer questions like, "Will I have a server?" At Gunshow, chefs personally bring out their creations, interacting with each table to convey the intentions behind each dish. Gillespie's latest restaurant, Revival, does a 180 on that, practically erasing any notion that a chef has anything to do with the plates before you. Revival offers Southern home cooking, plain and simple.
The two-month-old restaurant resides in an old home on Church Street, a few blocks off the Decatur Square. Before Revival, the space was home to Harbor House Pub, a neighborhood seafood restaurant that shuttered in December 2014. From the white picket fence to the roomy porch to the foyer where the hostess greets you at the door, Revival makes you feel welcome. The walls, sky blue over white wainscoting, are filled with Gillespie family portraits. A tray of butterscotch candies in crinkly gold wrappers graces the table by the fireplace. A little blackboard on the bookshelf says, "KG Books – Take one home today." Unlike the butterscotch, however, Gillespie's cookbooks are not free.
Many dishes on Revival's menu are riffs on his grandmothers' recipes, even though the kitchen is run by Andreas Muller, who has been by Gillespie's side at both Gunshow and Woodfire Grill. You can opt to go family style ($42 per person), choosing your entrée, but if you also want to choose your table's hors d'oeuvres and sides, go à la carte. The menu currently has four starters, six entrees, and seven sides that Revival calls trimmings. Gillespie notes that the offerings will evolve with the seasons, especially the veggies. The starters represent a mix of throwback and contemporary Southern sensibilities. Pleasantly mushy deviled ham on toast ($6 for three small slices) is a nod to Gillespie's childhood fishing trips with his father. The kale salad ($10) with apples and cheese would fit right in at the more upscale Cakes and Ale down the street. There’s also a lightly dressed heirloom tomato salad to close out the summer season, and a plate of hacked-up pickled Georgia shrimp that tastes better than it looks.
The simple entrees are notable for their lack of plating – they arrive unadorned on bare white plates. The fried chicken, three pieces for $13, is likely to become Revival's most popular item. Gillespie pointed out that this recipe, which he's guarding closely, is not among his family hand-me-downs. It's clearly a well-seasoned wet batter, which makes its way into the nooks and crannies of the meat. But the most unique note I picked up was an earthy, meatiness reminiscent of fried chicken livers (in a good way). Another entrée, a simple, straightforward pork steak ($20), is lightly brushed with sorghum. There is a filet of catfish ($14) coated in spicy tomato gravy, and wood-grilled quail kissed with honey and garlic ($18). We were eager to try the meatloaf wrapped in bacon, but it must be popular — they were out.
You could also make a meal by cobbling together the small but shareable sides ($5-$6). The fatback-fried corn is the cream corn of your dreams. The old-fashioned creamed potatoes delicately dance between dense and silky. The mac and cheese is a sticky, creamy overload. Don't miss the lovely field peas and butterbeans accented by dill and a good deal of butter.
Desserts ($7 each) hearken back to simpler times – a slice of chocolate cake, an apple tart with ice cream, pound cake with cream. The soothing lemon icebox pie topped with pillowy whipped cream dotted with lemon zest was the best of the bunch.
Drinking at Revival, as at any family meal, can be an iffy proposition. Having two punches on the menu is great, but the flat-tasting Chatham Artillery Punch ($8) lacked the drink's usual effervescence. The too-sweet rum-based Martinez Phosphate ($11) bore no resemblance at all to a traditional gin-based Martinez. Better to go for the Toasted Old Fashioned ($10), carried over from Gunshow, which is a balanced, wow-worthy take on the classic. Revival's wine list is short and jumps around from Austria to Italy to Sonoma. Wouldn't a Southern wine be nice on a list like this? Except for a lone Three Taverns brew, Revival's limited beer options eschew the South, as well.
Service is appropriately friendly, but so far misses opportunities for true hospitality – like not warning our table of four, for example, that the deviled ham toast came with only three slices (and never offering a fourth). Ironically, the complimentary, cooked-to-order triangles of cornbread served before the entrees arrive was my favorite part of the whole Revival experience. If this is what Gillespie had growing up, I'm jealous. Imagine a cross between an ethereal cornmeal soufflé and a creamy corn spoon bread, with a crispy-crunchy-buttery exterior holding it in. This is one Gillespie food memory you have to taste to fully appreciate.