As we drove east on Cheshire Bridge Road, it was clear we weren’t exactly navigating Rodeo Drive. Every other sign touted either a “gentleman’s club” or “adult entertainment.” This was an unlikely locale for one of Atlanta’s hottest restaurants, but since Woodfire Grill employs a “Top Chef” finalist, the red light district is suddenly no longer a limiting factor. 26-year-old Chef Kevin Gillespie has rocketed to fame with his calm demeanor and virtuoso performances on Bravo’s most popular program. My parents were so energized by his appearances that we booked a table in order to sample Gillespie’s cooking. We ordered almost everything on the menu, and the Top (or Top 3) Chef didn’t disappoint.
A tatted-up hostess and a crowned pig greeted us at the hostess station. After some back and forth that saved us from upstairs oblivion, we were led to a prized table in the main dining room. We had a front row seat for Chef Gillespie, who, along with sous chef E.J. Hodgkinson and a band of focused cooks, tamed the flames emanating from the hickory grill and oven. Skillets cook at 641 degrees in the Wood Stone oven, and a cook said they occasionally crank the oven to 1000 degrees when producing coals.
Gillespie is an Atlanta native who adheres to a local, sustainable and organic ethos that appears in print on Woodfire Grill’s menu, which also endorses “responsible animal stewardship and sustainable fishing practices.” They also make a point to thank 18 farmers, ranchers and artisans who help make this possible, including Gum Creek Farms, Whipporwill Hollow Farms, Sweetwater Natural Beef, Sweetgrass Dairy and Mary’s Gourmet Gardens.
We received a basket of focaccia, which paired well with butter flavored with herbs de Provence, champagne vinegar, salt and garlic powder. Our waiter also teased us with tales of pecan raisin bread, though they were out of those loaves for the day.
Pan Seared Diver Scallops ($15) were well-seasoned, caramelized on one side, supple on the other, and plated with crunchy petite local radishes, pistachio, orange scented chive butter and gritty fennel pollen.
Heiroom Carolina Gold rice risotto ($14) was relatively simple by comparison, with al dente grains interspersed with diced sweet potatoes and torn sage. What made the dish interesting were the judicious applications of Madeira butter and nutty-flavored argan oil.
The only starter that wasn’t a knockout: sage water battered chanterelle and oyster mushrooms ($11) drizzled with candied garlic syrup and plated in a pool of Ossau Iraty fonduta, a molten French sheep’s milk cheese. The flavor was there, but the key to a batter’s success is its crispness, and this batter didn’t have it.
My entree consisted of Wood Grilled Local Bob White Quail ($28), juicy game birds that absorbed the smoky flavor of the hickory and paired well with some fairly sweet accompaniments: local baby carrots, Brussels sprouts, roasted carrot-cumin puree and roasted garlic jus.
Wood Grilled Berkshire Pork Loin ($28) was seared on the outside, rosy at the center and plated with confit shallot, tart cherry gastrique, lemony sautéed spinach and addicting roasted local purple top turnips.
My father was stingy with the Wood Grilled Sonoma Artisan Duck Breast ($28), for good reason. The thin-sliced duck hosted crispy skin and came with an earthy base of black eyed peas, bacon, oven roasted turnip greens, pickled onion and parsley.
We split three different seasonal vegetables, which cost $6 apiece.
Pastry Chef Brittany Emerson is a CIA grad who has to work hard to keep pace with Woodfire Grill’s appetizers and entrees, and for the most part, she pulled it off. Her autumnal Pumpkin Flan ($8) was custardy, layered with fluffy Blis maple marshmallow, crunchy sweet potato chips and ringed with toasted pecans.
Our waiter said they used to have banana fritters with pieces of bacon, but they wanted more subtlety. Enter the Banana Cake ($8) striated with brown sugar bacon buttercream. The moist cake was paired with a scoop of fried banana ice cream plumed with banana chips and drizzled with salted caramel.
My brother is an absolute chocoholic, which is how we ended up with Chocolate Pain Perdu ($8). a rich slab of chocolate “bread” plated in a pool of chocolate sauce and topped with fluffy pistachio fromage blanc mousse that was dotted with candied pistachios.
It’s so hard to tell how good food tastes on “Top Chef,” since we never get to try anything. I’ve already tasted food from Michael Voltaggio at The Langham, and while his dishes involve some complex composition, Gillespie’s food was more satisfying. Based on this meal, if I was sitting at that final judge’s table, he’d probably get my vote for Top Chef.