Restaurant Review - Supper's on the table

Restaurant Eugene serves up Sunday supper with true Southern soul

Sunday supper. Two alliterative words that feel comforting to mouth and even more soothing to contemplate — an evening meal (dinner, of course, is served midday) of homey, hallowed dishes cooked by someone who hopefully takes intrinsic pleasure in the preparation. It is as much a time to ease into unforced conversation and eye contact as it is to hunker down on big plates of favorite foods.

And since Americans allocate ever-increasing amounts of their personal funds to dining out, it makes sense that chefs and restaurants across the country have begun to experiment with this deeply rooted tradition.

Linton Hopkins at Restaurant Eugene has stepped up to the stove to make Sunday supper in Atlanta, which isn't surprising: In the two years since Eugene opened, the timbre of Hopkins' cuisine has become progressively peppered with Southern overtones. Sure, he serves Hudson Valley foie gras, but he rests it atop a buttermilk biscuit. Sauteed striped bass goes Low Country on a fluffy bed of shrimp and grits. Carolina rice pudding is a staple among the dessert offerings. His native Southern soul must naturally gravitate toward feeding regional staples to folks one night a week.

The posh, sedate room also handsomely lends itself to a more relaxed dining experience. Even when crowded, the warm murmur in the air never ascends to a ruckus. And the service staff is unquestionably enthusiastic about Hopkins' foray into more humble terrains of hospitality.

Eugene's three-course Sunday supper costs $29.50 per person — less than some entrees on the restaurant's regular menu. If you're in the mood to gild your meal, spend some time with the concise but passionately assembled wine list. Don't hesitate to ask general manager Patrick Mitchell for help: He can direct you to an intriguing bargain or an electrifying, worthwhile blowout.

The supper menu has remained thematically consistent since Hopkins began serving it in early December, though the details vary from week to week. Three choices are offered for each of the three courses. The first sequence typically includes soup, salad and fried green tomatoes with a tangy rendition of rémoulade. Salads are lovely compositions — local lettuces arranged with goat cheese, batter-crusted duck cracklings and apple cider vinaigrette, or perhaps with blue cheese, spiced pecans and buttermilk dressing — but the kitchen really puts its heart into the soups. The wondrous potage on a recent Sunday was made with John Cope's dried corn from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Toasty aromas drifted from the bowl, and grace notes of smoky bacon and scallion awakened the summery sweetness in the pureed corn.

Hopkins' one-night-a-week fried chicken obviously begs comparison to Scott Peacock's Tuesday night efforts at Watershed. But the two are indeed birds of differing plumage. While Peacock pan-fries his chicken, Hopkins deep-fries his with cues from Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia Housewife, a cookbook published in 1824. I seriously doubt Randolph would have advocated Hopkins' outrageous concoction of frying fat — oil, lard, butter and bacon renderings — but it achieves his desired effect. Crackly skin leaves your fingers giddily greasy, while the meat has a clean, juicy honesty.

The first time I tried his chicken, however, Hopkins still seemed to be getting a feel for it: The white meat was on the dry side, the skin a tad too oily. By the second go-round, he'd nailed it. "God," sighed one tablemate, leaning in as she took another bite. "This tastes just like my mother's." Is there any higher compliment when it comes to fried chicken?

Pork and country-fried steak constitute the alternative choices among entrees (I suspect lighter options will rotate in as spring arrives). If the chicken is presented in unadorned austerity, with creamed greens and silky potato puree as simple accompaniments, things get cheffy with these other two meats. Suckling pig may be braised in Coca-Cola, strewn upon creamy grits, outfitted with a tuft of vinegary cole slaw, and drizzled with a barbecue sauce whose recipe was fashioned by Hopkins' Aunt Julia.

My reactions to the country-fried steak were reversed from the chicken: The first encounter bewitched me. The breading over the beef paralleled buried memories. I'd forgotten that odd, toothy-yet-soggy amalgam of textures that makes country-fried steak so ... irrefutable. And the black pepper gravy had just the right viscosity. Sweet potato puree and Brussels sprouts were on the side. Very meat-and-three, very appropriate.

The next time, the country-fried steak was smothered by a hominy and black-eyed pea succotash. Naw. Too fiddly. I'm not at all adverse to playfulness, and I expect a chef like Hopkins to incorporate the seasons and his own whims into this type of endeavor. Just be true to the soul of what Sunday supper means so the final results hum with a homespun veracity.

Like the desserts do. Red velvet cake. Lemon buttermilk chess pie. Banana cream pudding. These Southern beauts have been tweaked only to their highest, purist potential. The filling of the pie teeters right between tart and sweet, and is that a touch of lard I detect in the crust? The red velvet cake blazes scarlet, a blushing contrast to the snowy, buttery frosting. A toasted dollop of meringue tops the warmed banana pudding, which looks all grown up in its dapper metal goblet. Second helpings of each, please.

Hopkins is onto something important here. Iconic, caloric creations like these have become special occasion splurges rather than weekly mainstays in the Southern and American diet, and I await more Atlanta chefs willing to welcome these kinds of dishes into their professional vernacular. Bravo to Restaurant Eugene for taking the lead.