First Look: Beignet Connection

Creole in the Pencil Factory Lofts, plus a visit to Marlee's Coffee & Tea House

Small restaurants featuring traditional New Orleans food open and close like flies in Atlanta. There have been so many I don't remember their names. Nor can I explain the brief lifespan. Maybe it's underfunding. Maybe it's the often mediocre cooking. Maybe it's the absence of street mimes.

The latest to open is the Beignet Connection (349 Decatur St., 404-525-5295) in the Pencil Factory near Grant Park. I've visited the restaurant four times with almost 100 percent enthusiasm. I'm not going to get into the usual debate about the difference between Creole and Cajun cooking. I do feel fairly certain, though, that the menu's self-description as "Nouvelle Creole Cuisine" makes little sense. The food here is mainly traditional and features none of the "nouvelle" touches that define that movement.

In fact, when I asked chef Mike Jones why the food is called nouvelle, he told me he had no idea. It turns out that Jones is a consulting chef in the restaurant, which is owned by Tony Martin, who managed the defunct Huey's for 10 years. Jones, who does not live in Atlanta, also consulted at Huey's and in several other restaurants in town such as McKinnon's Louisiane.

But my food was far better than any I ever encountered at either of those restaurants. The jambalaya, for example, was full of freshly cooked chicken, shrimp and sausage. Most notable, its tomato sauce, lightly clinging to the rice, was superb — fruity, slightly garlicky and faintly spicy hot. Our server had warned us that if we were expecting red-hot cooking, we weren't going to get it. "But you can add all the hot sauce you want," he told us.

My usual test of New Orleans cooking is the étouffée. The Beignet Connection's was faboo. The roux was dark and intense, swimming with spicy crawfish over rice. I could eat it all day.

The restaurant is also open for lunch and breakfast, when pain perdu is served and drawing raves. I picked up a muffuletta for lunch one day and it had all the right ingredients, although I would have preferred kalamatas over the tasteless black olives. No worries: The green olives rescued the taste. I bought the supersized sandwich, thinking I would share it with someone at the coffee shop I was headed to. But I ate every bite of the enormous thing myself.

I've also tasted the 14-ounce grilled rib-eye topped with Gorgonzola that Wayne ordered, quite a bargain at $16.95, but not nearly as interesting as the rest of the menu. All vegetables, from wilted spinach to grilled asparagus, have been fresh and uncomplicated. The only starter I've tried is a very good gumbo. Others, like artichoke and spinach dip, didn't interest me.

The least satisfying entrée was a pair of crab cakes. There was more of the lump crab than I usually encounter in this ubiquitous dish. The cakes were lightly encrusted with panko crumbs and seared. To my taste, they were undercooked with an almost gooey texture in parts. The exterior had no crispness. What I did like was the spicy house-made rémoulade. I worry that this somewhat negative experience was the result of Jones' absence from the kitchen. Time will tell.

The beignets? Addictive, especially slathered with caramel-pecan sauce. If nothing else, drop in for coffee and a plateful of those.

Next Door

Just a few doors away in the Pencil Factory is Marlee's Coffee & Tea House (404-230-9160). I dropped by after my last meal at the Beignet Connection. It was late, about 10:30 p.m. The café is not usually open then, but Tuesdays are open-mike night. "We stay open until it's over," an employee told me.

Marlee's regularly hosts poetry and writing events.

During my quick visit, I sampled my usual doppio macchiato. Good espresso, but the foam was a bit watery for my taste. I also wolfed down a "sandwich" made of two huge red-velvet cookies stuffed with icing.

It's a very convivial spot, featuring sandwiches, salads, tapas, breakfast dishes and lots more pastries, many of them house-made. I look forward to returning.

I've noticed that the history of the Pencil Factory, which originally occupied the site, is missing from its website. It was an important setting in one of the most shameful events in Atlanta's history, a tale of rabid racism and anti-Semitism.

It is where Leo Frank was accused, probably falsely, of murdering a 13-year-old worker in 1913. The governor commuted Frank's death sentence to life imprisonment, enraging the city's residents, thanks in part to the blood-thirsty ranting of the newspapers here.

A group of Marietta citizens, including a former governor and several other people of note, kidnapped Frank from jail and lynched him. Their identities were not released until about 10 years ago.

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