Shaun Doty becomes a master of his domain at Shaun's
Now it can be told – the true story of my feelings about Shaun Doty's cooking.
Don't worry, there's nothing really negative about it. I have enjoyed Doty's work ever since he was chef at Mumbo Jumbo. That restaurant, you'll recall, had Guenter Seeger on board as consulting chef. Doty had worked for Seeger when he was chef of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead.
After Doty left the Dining Room, he landed at restaurants in France and Belgium, then returned to the States. After two gigs elsewhere, he returned to run the kitchen at Mumbo Jumbo at Seeger's behest. He then went on to open MidCity Cuisine, then Table 1280, and in 2006, Shaun's (1029 Edgewood Ave., 404-577-4358) in Inman Park. I believe he has shared ownership in all of these restaurants except Table 1280.
So, Doty has a resume nearly as giddy as Richard Blais', and I used to make the same complaint about him as others currently lodge against Blais — that he never stayed anywhere long enough to get really focused. Doty has a rep as something of a society dude, often showing up in pictures of convocations of the beautiful people. His restaurants have always seemed to attract that crowd and, knowing their insatiable taste for the nouveau, I've wondered if Doty's peripatetic resume is a reflection of that.
But I've always found his cooking almost the opposite of that ever-nouveau aesthetic. He likes to cook straightforward dishes that feature first-quality ingredients. I once heard him rhapsodize about a strawberry and wanted to snatch it out of his hands and run with it. But here's the thing: Even with the high-quality ingredients and the perfect execution, I never found his cooking to be animated by that soulful, magical quality that induces a virtual altered state. You know what I'm saying?
Well, I sure as hell no longer have that complaint. After friends told me they had a remarkable meal at Shaun's recently, I decided to visit again. It was one of the best meals I've had in months.
The restaurant was literally empty when we arrived around 8 p.m. Our server, Owen, apparently thought we were uncomfortable sitting alone in the dining room and explained that "everyone else" was eating on the back patio. "Would you like to move there?" he asked. We told him we were fine, although – sitting with a view of the kitchen – we did feel a bit like intruders at first. One day I'll figure out why eating in an empty restaurant can be so uncomfortable.
The menu changes daily here but certain favorites are always available. One of those is the chopped liver, which Wayne ordered. It's velvety chicken livers that have been lightly breaded and fried, then broken up and combined with chopped boiled eggs. Instead of mayo, the dish seems to be bound lightly with bacon fat. It's heaped on two pieces of toast, impossible to eat without burying your nose in the heady stuff, which is sprinkled with some kosher salt.
I ordered Angus beef tartare, classically prepared and served with super-healthy buckwheat sprouts. All that protein, all that vitamin B was also served with ridiculously decadent french fries cooked in duck fat. Here's some advice: Ask for some malt vinegar. It's a virtually necessary contrast to the rich, delicious fattiness with which you will be fattening yourself.
We also sampled a freakin' amazing soup – basically an airy puree of Crystal Farms organic eggplant, swirled with cream and topped with some micro basil sprouts. A few thin slices of a sweet-hot chili were also in the bowl. It's true. Less is more. Less is more.
My entrée was a special, oxtail parmentier, that I keep ruminating over. Doty braises the oxtails in broth until the meat is fork-tender and oily, almost like short ribs, but richer in flavor. These are topped with a thin layer of creamy mashed potatoes that actually lighten the dish. The richness further contrasts the slight bitterness of pieces of roasted endive that encircle the assemblage.
Wayne ordered grilled squab over sweet organic spaghetti squash with glazed, whole chestnuts. Doty roasts high-pedigree Palmetto squabs, but I find it impossible to see these on a plate without recalling that scene in Eraserhead when pigeons served for dinner suddenly come alive. If you haven't seen the film, a 1977 release by David Lynch, and like squab, maybe you shouldn't.
For dessert we ordered Sweetgrass Dairy goat cheese with an Eccles cake and date puree, along with a surprise addition of butternut squash puree. Again, this dish displayed almost arithmetic contrasts of earthy cheese, sweet currants in the tiny Eccles cake, mildly sweet dates and, finally, squash still a degree less sweet. We also sampled a vanilla panna cotta, served in something like a Ball jar, layered with huckleberries and lemon sorbet – kiddy food for adults.
It is clear that Shaun Doty, who was on his way to cook at a special event in New York the next day, has fully bloomed into one of the city's best talents. It occurs to me now that by cooking with complete simplicity, Doty's set for himself the more difficult task of acquiring mastery than have his flashy colleagues.
Service at the restaurant was A-plus. Owen ranks as another very rare server, like Patrick at Top Flr, who is able to talk in depth about the menu without running to the kitchen to get an answer to every question. He told us he grew up in the restaurant business and feels like he has to know how every dish is prepared. "That's the first thing I do when I get to work," he said. "I go over the menu and find out what's in any of the new dishes." He's a hospitality student at Georgia State. By all means ask for him. He's server of the week.