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Restaurant Review - Southern purebred

Horseradish Grill a gentle trot through New Southern staples

Turning from Roswell Road onto Powers Ferry offers a prototypical snapshot of Atlanta's quick-change scenery: One moment you're snarling at other drivers in Buckhead congestion as miles of strip malls close in around you. Then, unexpectedly, you're engulfed in lush trees and an almost absurdly idyllic neighborhood. Folks are power-walking in matching outfits on well-kept sidewalks. The hills of a verdant golf course gently undulate on one side of the street while you ogle monstrous manor houses on the other.

This doesn't seem to be the kind of community that would embrace outsiders. And yet Horseradish Grill, nestled across from Chastain Park, feels like a country club where everyone is welcome.

Horseradish Grill came onto the scene in the mid-'90s during an all-too-brief rush of New Southern culinary enthusiasm. Scott Peacock, currently of Watershed fame, loaned his deeply traditional sensibilities (mac-n-cheese, thick cut pork chops, turnip greens) as the restaurant's opening chef. Dave Berry, his replacement, citified the menu with gourmet trappings, a style to which Tom McEachern, the current chef, has remained faithful. Think classic Southern creations all draped over mounds of '90s-esque flavored mashed potatoes.

In fact, I'll admit I was dubious when I first sat down under the lovely wooden beams in the barn-themed dining room. It was a Friday night, the place was packed and our server was quick with the first round of drinks. But the menu? Hmmm. I spied mussels, pecan-crusted goat cheese salad and seared scallops with red pepper grits. It all looked a little been-there-ate-that.

Then came the apps. I dug my fork into a re-envisioned barbecue sandwich of pulled pork topped with crisp coleslaw over a cornmeal pancake. It had the smart, piquant give-and-take that denotes a chef confidant in his approach to gussied-up Southern food. (However, I can't let them get away with labeling it North Carolinian; that state's sauce is vinegar-based, not tomato-based like this concoction.) Crab cakes were gorgeously lumpy, the meat's sweetness tempered by a capered tarter sauce. A feisty version of herby shrimp and grits strewn with caramelized onions and roasted red peppers was more upscale than Low Country, but the tasty add-ons don't overwhelm the dishes' essentials. God, I love it when my skepticism is proven wrong.

Not that there aren't a couple misfires among the starters. Fried oysters do not need the addition of parmesan, particularly when it's the pre-shredded variety of inferior quality (although, granted, something akin to Kraft in the green can has closer ties to the South than Parmagiano Reggiano). Maple-smoked quail has an appealing robust flavor, but the two scrawny pieces of fowl nearly drown in a mammoth serving of Hoppin' John.

It's hard to find grumbles — other than the overabundance of spuds — over the honest, straightforward entrees. If the food doesn't wow, it certainly doesn't disappoint either. A rich Angus sirloin steak with chile-spiked fries and grilled asparagus seems just the type of dish for the older, sweater-over-the-shoulders clientele that comprises much of the restaurant's crowd. Seared loin venison has an aggressively gamy, almost livery taste. But if you like that sort of thing (and I do), it's wonderful, particularly paired with mashed sweet potatoes and collards. Lamb chops come with a clever Dijon-mint jelly glaze and a fantastic risotto-like pilaf of root vegetables and orzotto.

The fried chicken here begs comparison to Watershed's legendary Tuesday-night rendition. Both aim for the same delicate, crispy crust, and both serve their bird alongside mashed potatoes and garlicky green beans. You probably won't be surprised to hear that there's a depth and sweetness to Watershed's chicken that's missing from HG's, and the potatoes at Watershed are creamier. But, as one of my tablemates kindly pointed out, you can get Horseradish Grill's version any night of the week, Decatur is way across town, and this fried chicken ain't bad. So if you live nearby and crave some gospel bird, give this one a shot.

My favorite entree by far was a special: lightly smoked pork tenderloin with braised greens and potato gratin. It tasted just like the kind of special meal an old friend would make for you when you pass through town for a visit. Put this baby on the regular menu, please.

Do not leave without ordering the oatmeal-spice cake with caramel ice cream for dessert. Apparently it's a recipe from the grandmother of someone who passed through this kitchen. Origins aside, it is sublime. The moist, fragrant cake is topped with a sticky toffee-like topping with coconut, and the ice cream has a sophisticated subtlety. I came this close to excusing myself from the table and ordering a second helping to eat by myself on the patio in the dark.

There's a lot about Horseradish Grill that works — the cozy booths, the relaxed patrons, the tasteful watercolors of horses in the bar. It's easy to see why the throngs have never died down at this restaurant. The food has had its ups and downs over the years, but right now, I'd say this pacer is currently on a winning streak.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com