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The tasteful and tasty Ecco arrives at Cypress and Seventh

"Geez, I can't believe this," I told my friend Jeff as we parked near Ecco (40 Seventh St., 404-347-9555). "I think this building used to be a dirty bookstore in the '70s. No, wait. That was bombed."

Instead, the new restaurant, owned by the same people who operate South City Kitchen and the Food Studio, is located in the former home of the Atlanta Fencing Club.

But that's not why Cypress Street is famous. This little-traveled street parallel to Peachtree in Midtown was once most famous for its loitering male prostitutes. It was also home to the Gallus, a gay restaurant located in a rococo former funeral home. The basement of the Gallus was a bar notorious for its mixture of hustlers and older men. Years ago, a friend and I used to go there occasionally and pretend we were trailer park residents from Macon. We made no money (thank God), but we never paid for a drink.

Such pretense would get me nowhere at Ecco. Fair disclosure requires me to admit I was recognized by one of the waiters, Paymon, who quickly informed me that another paper's critic was in the restaurant, too. Paymon, who last worked at the Globe and Brasserie le Coze before that, dispenses gossip as facilely as he delivers food to the table.

Jeff and I did not have reservations and the month-old restaurant was packed on a Friday night, requiring us to eat on the terrace at a table next to a service area. So my experience of the interior, by the inevitable Johnson Studio, was limited to wandering about the restaurant aimlessly while people shot me peculiar looks.

I like the space a lot. It's classy but not theatrical. In fact, the use of marble, leather and walnut communicates a cozy feeling, even though the space has a see-and-be-seen layout. That goes for the open kitchen as well as seating. In fact, you might worry it extends to the glass-fronted unisex bathrooms. But, thankfully, the glass here stays opaque regardless of the light, unlike the bathrooms at some other Atlanta restaurants.

The menu is killer. Executive chef Micah Willix comes from Fort Lauderdale, that boomtown where people plan to live forever. Willix worked for Seasons 52, a developing chain of restaurants featuring healthy, seasonal cuisine. (One is scheduled to open in Buckhead in the fall.) The restaurant could as well have been named Euro because that's the influence here — bold flavors from France, Italy and Spain, in particular.

You can easily graze here on small plates if you wish. Most of the menu is charcuterie, cheeses, appetizers and "taste and share" dishes. Pastas and main courses are available, too, though there are fewer choices.

Jeff and I started with two Spanish cheeses — a ripe Cabrales and a comparatively smooth Murcia al Vino (our favorite). We also ordered Epoisses, from France, aged to creamy perfection. All three of these cheeses fall in the pungent range but the Cabrales, to which sheep, goats and cows donate their milk, is almost overwhelming. I suggest you add some charcuterie — like fennel-seasoned salami — to your plate.

We followed with two appetizers. The grilled octopus was the only dish I considered a loser. It's certainly an appealing concept. The octopus is seasoned heavily with paprika and is served with boiled crumbly potatoes. But, honestly, the octopus had been marinated or otherwise tenderized to such a degree that it attained an unpleasant texture. Hint for a better version: Kyma.

The other app was stellar. Grilled white asparagus was served with a salad of lightly cooked, marinated cherry tomatoes. Tastes like summer in Atlanta.

Our entrees were likewise terrific. I ordered two quail marinated in balsamic vinegar, served with pine nuts and roasted cauliflower. The latter was a bit bland but the quail were meaty and savory. Paymon told me they were raised at a ranch in South Georgia. Visions of Dick Cheney danced in my head.

Jeff ordered a grilled skirt steak, served under a potent green sauce. The steak was positioned over a mound of mustard greens. Think chimichurri gone to Mexico and come home to Georgia. I loved the dish.

For dessert: a pine nut tart with buttermilk ice milk and a mild coffee panna cotta. We also got to sample a ricotta torte with sour cherries mistakenly brought to the table. The panna cotta, with hazelnut praline and chilled zabaglione, was the winner, but none were a disappointment.

The restaurant also features an amazing wine list with detailed descriptions. A feature many will welcome is the balsa label the restaurant presents you to take home, so you won't have to rack your brain to remember the name of that fabulous bottle of wine you drank all by yourself last night. You'll just have to remember where you put the clever label.

Feedback

Ed Cohen writes to recommend a trip to Suwanee to check out Hmong House. Ed is a Vietnam vet who says he agrees with my politics 110 percent and my reviews 90 percent. He fought with the Hmong while in Laos. So he's delighted to find the blend of Vietnamese and Laotian flavors at this restaurant, located on Old Peachtree Road at Satellite Boulevard. He says the restaurant is hard to miss, being buried in a strip of shops whose anchor is a beauty shop. ...

This disturbing news is from Edward Lindahl: "I get my hair cut at Jerry's Barber Shop, right next door to Kool Korner Grocery [on 14th Street, near Georgia Tech], home of the best Cuban sandwich in Atlanta. Jerry says the person that owns that entire block is selling out and everyone has to be out by the end of the year. I have no idea what will become of the grocery, but it sounds like they'll be moving at the very least."

That totally sucks.

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com



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