A new chef for Sauced

Plus a visit to Hill Street Tavern

It's been about a year and a half since Ria Pell opened Sauced (753 Edgewood Ave., 404-688-6554) on the edge of Inman Park. Located in a pleasingly retro building with curvy banquettes and a new outdoor covered patio, the restaurant has been serving riffs on classic Southern dishes at midrange prices.

Now, though, it seems Pell, who also owns Ria's Bluebird, has taken a turn toward somewhat more creative dishes. That is in part due to the hiring of a new sous chef, Andrew Thomas. He has an impressive résumé with stints at Local Three, Livingston and Table 1280. He was also Linton Hopkins' sous chef at Restaurant Eugene for a time. And, most interesting, he is a highly awarded demolition derby driver. What a great way to work off the stress of laboring in the hell of a restaurant kitchen. Much better than hurling dishes at co-workers.

Pell and Thomas have collaborated on a new menu that continues the Southern diner theme — the fluffy biscuits are still there — with some interesting twists and turns. Six of us dined at Sauced a couple of weeks ago and I didn't hear anything but compliments.

The standout dish at the table, ordered by three of us, was the pork and beans. This entrée featured a grilled 10-ounce pork chop from White Oak Pastures. It was stuffed with boudin sausage, given a bath in "creole mustard jus" and served over puréed red beans. The plate also included some braised kale that added a slightly bitter, acidic note to the creamy beans and rich stuffed pork, which remained juicy, unlike most stuffed chops I've encountered.

I also liked the three small plates we ordered as appetizers. One was a fairly ordinary bowl of countless mussels steamed in white wine and garlic. Another featured chunks of green tomatoes and roasted beets with Greek yogurt, pistachios and some drizzled honey. My favorite, though, was chicken livers fried in a tempura-like batter interspersed with more green tomatoes.

A successful parody of a Southern classic was called German fried chicken. It was basically schnitzel made with the breast meat of Springer Mountain chicken, served with lemon aïoli and a tarragon-tinged salad of garbanzos, red beans and sugar snap peas. A house-smoked tenderloin steak, wrapped in Benton's bacon, was served with grilled baby Vidalia onions and risotto containing crimini mushrooms.

The only place the restaurant falters is with desserts. We sampled two — lemon ice box mini pies and a "grasshopper bar" that was an intense brownie, topped with crème de menthe buttercream and bittersweet ganache. The latter was more pleasing than the little lemon pies, whose meringue was more decorative than flavorful.

All in all, the restaurant has improved and, in case you wondered, it isn't requiring cash these days. Soon, too, Pell and Thomas will feature organic produce grown in the restaurant's own garden.

New at the Pencil Factory

The Hill Street Tavern (349 Decatur St., at Hill Street, 404-554-4955) has joined Caramba Cafe and the Beignet Connection in the Pencil Factory Lofts. The pub, open less than two weeks when I visited for dinner and lunch, offers a calorific menu, thanks to some of the largest portions on the planet.

There was, for example, a double pork chop undergoing consumption at an adjoining table. My first glimpse of it required that I jump up and interrupt the diner's meal. "Holy crap!" I blurted. The woman eating it told me it was very good but that she expected to take more than half of it home.

Wayne and I decided to order one steak — a 2-pound monster (with bone in) that was grilled medium-rare and, considering the $30 cost, was a flavorful bargain for two.

We also tried a couple of appetizers, including fried okra and golf ball-sized jalapeño corn fritters. I'm not sure why the latter weren't called hushpuppies, but they were pretty tasty, served with chow-chow and a mild pepper sauce. We both preferred the okra, lightly dusted and fried, bursting with a favorite flavor this time of year.

I also stopped by for lunch one afternoon and ordered the BELT. That's a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with an egg added — a fried duck egg to be exact. Like the steak, the sandwich was huge, served on thick, toasted whole wheat bread. The house-cured bacon could have been crispier, but, overall, the sandwich was a nostalgic reminder of the Woolworth's lunch counter.

I admit I wasn't really fond of the duck egg. The yolk squirted out of the sandwich but tasted good with the super-crispy, salty fries on the plate. A sandwich this huge ordinarily would be cut in half by the kitchen, but that would obviously deprive the diner of power over the egg yolk. I would ask for a knife to cut it, though.

We tried one dessert at dinner — a peach-raisin bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream. It was of the variety that features very smooth bread custard, not typically my favorite, but I'd order it again.

The restaurant is still experimenting with the menu and entrées mainly appear as specials. Besides the Godzilla hunks of meat, I've seen shrimp and grits and trout (with another fried duck egg) on a sandwich board out front. You'll also find a burger, a grilled pimento cheese sandwich, fish and chips, and a fried green tomato sandwich.

The tavern has an enthusiastic staff that will explain the source of many ingredients and assure you that meats are cured on the premises.

It's a great addition to the Old Fourth Ward/Grant Park 'hood.

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