First look: The BookHouse Pub

They just keep on coming, the gastropubs. And they just keep getting better, too. As I noted in a column about the Porter earlier this month, gastropubs are the perfect restaurants for our economic times. They allow restaurateurs to exploit the higher profit margin of booze sales and they give diners good food at relatively low prices.

The latest to open is the BookHouse Pub (736 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-254-1176) in Midtown. (Another good one has opened on Edgewood Avenue, the Bureau, and I'll be looking at it next week.)

It has occurred to me that most of these gastropubs, besides simply representing a trend imported from the Brits, are also expressive of a new generation of restaurant entrepreneurs and chefs.

While established, big-money folks like Bob Amick of Concentrics Restaurants continue to create the large, dramatic spaces that became popular in the last decade, the new generation seems to be returning to the hand-crafted look and intimate ambiance of neighborhood restaurants. On the culinary side, these spots are often chef-driven. Like any appealing work of art, gastropubs like the BookHouse are strongly expressive of their creators' personalities.

The BookHouse has been opened by folks involved with MJQ. Understating it, that's the quirky, youthful alternative club located in the subterranean space of a building just across the parking lot. Lots of people are describing this new space as MJQ grown up. Perhaps. On the evening of our visit to BookHouse, at MJQ the DJ was playing nothing but Morrissey and the Smiths. Thank God my antidepressants were not tested by a similar soundscape at the BookHouse.

The new gastropub is really beautiful. It's named after the hangout of the group of lawless leaders, the Bookhouse Boys, in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks." The literary theme is quite literal, with an upper shelf of paperback books snaking around the largely wood-paneled place. There's stained glass and carved ornaments. There's good art on the walls. No, really. Good art! The patio out back is a beautiful, two-tiered space between stone and wood walls. Those aren't stars in the black sky overhead; they're little lanterns.

Chef Julia LeRoy's menu is an amusing range of satisfying munchies such as fried pickles and funnel cakes, as well as more sophisticated dishes such as duck confit and artisan cheeses.

I started with the duck confit, which was removed from the bone, shredded somewhat, and served over a pool of pumpkin puree that in turn topped a spoonbread pancake. I did not locate the menu's promised fried sage, but the dish was a contrast of three soft, rich textures and flavors – slightly sweet, slightly fatty.

Wayne ordered the spring rolls filled with collards braised with bacon, served with the traditional Vietnamese fish sauce. I've had similar dishes before – both dumplings and spring rolls – but none that presented such a clear taste of collards.

One thing is for certain about the appetizers here. The MJQ crowd doesn't have to worry about giving up its taste for fried food. Literally eight of the 11 starters are fried, including salmon croquettes, green tomatoes, potato chips, wings and french fries. Even the mac-and-cheese is fried. But don't worry. If you don't want a fried app, you can get a salad, a soup, the duck confit or a baked potato loaded with sour cream, butter and cheddar cheese. Much healthier.

Our two entrees were delicious takes on Southern-style home cooking. Instead of fried catfish, you can order pieces of grouper fried in a pretzel coating. It was good, really good – and it was a huge portion, served over shiitake-rice pilaf with green beans. Of course, there was tartar sauce on the side.

That was Wayne's choice. I ordered the 10-ounce pork chop with roasted cauliflower, braised kale and mashed potatoes. The kale was about three times too salty for my taste and the cauliflower was disappointing. It was itty-bitty florets, too small to provide much flavor or even the characteristic texture of roasted cauliflower. The pork chop, however, was perfect: seared, juicy, tender.

I couldn't resist ordering the funnel cake for dessert. It is what it is – a carney-style funnel cake served on a paper plate with powdered sugar. The gentrifying touch is a scoop of cinnamon ice cream. I'm gonna get, like, real stoned and order it with fried pickles.

Wayne ordered the "car bomb float," Bailey's ice cream with Jameson syrup and Mackeson's stout, which prompted him to start swinging his empty mug back and forth, singing a German song about curing malaria with beer.

The BookHouse has an extensive beer selection. Wayne and our server deliberated at length to select the weirdest brew on the menu – and then he ordered something else.

Here and there

The Original El Taco opened last week in the space formerly occupied by Sala. The menu was developed by Shaun Doty and is largely Tex-Mex. I haven't tried it yet, but I'm a little scared of pizzas made with carnitas, although I'm betting that if anyone can finesse such a concept, it's Doty. It all sounds a bit Wolfgang Puck-ish to me.

I don't understand why Atlantans won't patronize restaurants with more authentic Mexican fare. I guess Tex-Mex has developed into something like a comfort food for many Americans. And it's amazing to me to still hear diners whining about "spiiiicy" food. I've had servers in Mexican and Asian restaurants announce that the food isn't spicy before I even inquire about the menu. ...

I returned to Pung Mie, an old favorite, recently. Hot braised chicken, apparently the Chinese-Korean euphemism for "fried chicken," is still my favorite dish here. The food here is kinda spiiiicy. ...

Rise Sushi Lounge has opened in the Luckie-Marietta District. ... My obsession, La Pietra Cucina, is now open Saturday nights and has decided for the time being to remain in its smaller space. ...

Bruce Logue, the chef at La Pietra, was at Babbo in New York. Coincidentally, Jay Clark, the chef at the new Bureau, mentioned above, also did a stint at the same wildly popular restaurant.

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