First Look: Bocado

Chef Todd Ginsberg shows up on the Westside

Bocado (887 Howell Mill Road, 404-815-1399) is the latest restaurant to open on the city’s Westside. Its location — across from Octane, at the corner of Howell Mill Road and Marietta Street — is the first evidence of the way the restaurant typifies a significant shift in the city’s restaurant community. The Westside is booming — at least compared to more expensive real estate in the city. Lower rent and smaller spaces are essential to most restaurants’ survival in this economy.

And that’s also produced a shift in restaurant appearance. Bocado’s design is by ai3, the people whose first project was the (defunct) Globe, my favorite interior in recent years. They’ve also designed 4th & Swift, Holeman & Finch and the particularly wonderful Flip.

Rather than the theatrical, large spaces that typify the Johnson Studio designs (Aria, Two Urban Licks), for example, ai3’s are spare in utilization of uncluttered open space, but the firm also employs natural (and recycled) materials that conversely add an intimate glow, especially after sunset. Communal tables also seem to be part of ai3’s play with space.

Bocado is owned by Brian Lewis, son of several generations of Southern restaurateurs. His most recent enterprise was Table in Birmingham, Ala. He has hired Todd Ginsberg as executive chef. Ginsberg is a gifted chef with considerable background in French cuisine, most recently serving as executive chef at Trois, after opening Tap, the Concentrics-owned gastropub in Midtown.

Ginsberg’s menu is another expression of the times. It is inexpensive and stresses small plates and sandwiches. (Thus the name “Bocado,” which means “mouthful” or “a taste” in Spanish.) I’ve visited twice — once for lunch and once for dinner — only a day or two after the restaurant opened and, despite a fairly brisk business, encountered no serious glitches. And I ate very well.

The lunch menu, of course, seeks to attract the business crowd along Marietta Street, which stretches a short distance to downtown. Most of the sandwiches are $8, and side dishes — salads and soups, mainly — average $5 for small portions and a few dollars more for larger portions. Prices for sandwiches rise slightly at night and shared plates range from $6 to $14.

My lunch choice was a cup of delicately flavored watercress vichyssoise topped with a few thinly sliced, sweet and crispy “breakfast radishes.” (Ginsberg, according to press material, is emphasizing local ingredients.) I followed that with a sandwich of pimento cheese with sliced, roasted poblanos, bacon and a slice of fried green tomato. Tomato bisque lightly moistened the sandwich (and heavily turned it an un-photogenic color perfect for traffic signs). I could eat one of these daily.

Friends at lunch ordered other sandwiches — none of the interesting ones such as the braised Duroc pork or the roasted cauliflower with Thai eggplant. They also ordered fries. One order was seasoned with garlic and served with ranch dressing. Another order, the preferable one to my palate, was unflavored, crispy, hot and potato-y.

I wish someone would explain the immense popularity of ranch dressing to me. The stuff is showing up everywhere. I expect a ranch-flavored ice cream from faux-gourmet Häagen-Dazs any day now. I’m so baffled by its popularity that I spent an hour reading about it online. I learned that Homer Simpson loves the stuff, but I still don’t understand what about it makes it such an American obsession. (Feel free to advise me.)

I returned for dinner and had an even better meal. We ordered two shared plates — crab fritters and toast topped with chicken-liver spread. The latter, flavored with sea salt, provided a few “bocados” each and was the only relative disappointment of the evening. It was tasty enough, but frankly, it mainly made me crave Shaun Doty’s version.

The crab fritters, served over an Asian-style apple salad, were the menu’s most expensive shared plate ($14). The flavors and texture, tricky with crab fritters in my experience, worked well. I’ll add my perennial complaint about the portion, though. Why put an odd number of fritters — three — on a dish meant for sharing?

Three sandwiches and three entrees were offered. I chose the oyster stew with bacon, croutons, parsley and potato puree. It was absolutely delicious. At first, I thought the oysters were smoked but the server explained to me that the bacon imparted the smoky taste.

Wayne’s dish was equally fab: Chesapeake flounder, cooked until buttery and slightly browned, served with braised green beans, green olives, capers and sliced almonds. As I’ve observed before, flounder seems to be experiencing a renaissance in popularity around town and this was among the best versions I’ve tried.

We had two desserts. Actually, I repeated one I'd sampled at lunch: chocolate pudding with bananas, peanut cookies and fluffy caramel. It’s served in a jar and is plenty for two unless you are a professional eater. The other dessert — tiny éclairs impersonating Moon Pies — didn’t measure up to the pudding. Yeah, get the pudding.

This is as great addition to the Westside scene. I hope chef Ginsberg will be creating some French bistro-style dishes. The sandwiches are terrific for the most part, but it’s clear where the chef’s talents really shine.

Here and there

We had only an hour to grab something to eat before Leonard Cohen’s concert at the Fox last Tuesday night. Baraonda was packed with a wait so we dashed into Churchill Grounds, which is mainly a bar. For inexplicable reasons — it was 7 p.m. — nothing but appetizers were available from the kitchen.

We both ordered mediocre dumplings — beef for Wayne and chicken for me. I had been tempted by the “artisanal cheese plate” — until I saw it delivered to the adjoining table whose occupant muttered something to her tablemate about “artisanal Kraft cheddar.”...

I’ve eaten pizza from Antico Pizza Napoletana three times now. The pizzeria has installed seating at its large communal table in the “dough room.” It’s a bit of a trip to see Georgia Tech students on one side of the table and foodies in the orgasmic throes of oral gratification on the other.

When our gigantic order arrived at the table, a group of students — one of whom had spent 15 minutes eating a piece of crust he kept sprinkling with parmesan — whooped and hollered and began sliding things aside to make room for our two gigantic pies, the sopressata with peperonata, and the marinara with anchovies. We should have shared … but we did not.