Review: Restaurant Eugene

The beginning of the end for many chefs is the moment their success convinces them to expand. A second location or a secondary concept often marks the point at which attention becomes divided, profit becomes the focus, and expansion for the sake of expansion kidnaps the good sense of otherwise great restaurateurs.

It seems just the opposite occurred when chef Linton Hopkins branched out from his original eatery, Restaurant Eugene. Last year, he partnered with some of his longtime employees and friends to open Holeman & Finch Public House, and shortly after (the now wholesale-only) H&F Bread Co. But rather than distracting him from his original restaurant, it appears that his new ventures have only served to inspire Hopkins.

It’s possible that the passion and energy it takes to open a new restaurant seeped across the breezeway at the Armour building and imbued Restaurant Eugene with some of the freshness exhibited by Holeman & Finch. (And a ton of passion and energy must have gone into Holeman & Finch, because it continues to be one of the city's most exciting eating and drinking experiences, exhibiting a boyish exuberance that’s damn near impossible to resist.) Whatever the reason, the food at Restaurant Eugene over the past year has become brighter, bolder and more accessible. Hopkins is now cooking on par with the absolute best chefs in the Southeast.

Restaurant Eugene has always been commendable. Hopkins was one of the original chefs in Atlanta to strongly commit to using local produce. He was also one of the first to recognize the potential for Southern food and ingredients to shine with more refined presentations and in a fine dining setting. When I arrived in Atlanta, Eugene was one of the restaurants I was most excited to try. There are dishes from that first meal I’ll never forget. Hopkins’ butter bean soup, which still shows up on his menu (most often as an amuse), thoroughly transformed my understanding of that vegetable’s possibilities — the silky, milky soup so luscious and caressing, still somehow tasting like a Southern field on a hot summer’s day.

But there were things during that first visit, and in my visits over the following years, that undermined the promise of that soup. I found the room slightly stuffy. One or two dishes in every meal failed to live up to the perfection warranted by the high prices.

As the very concept of prohibitively expensive, overly formal restaurants became less and less relevant in a recession era, and food fanaticism became a populist movement, restaurants like Eugene suffered. Eugene in particular begged for a broader audience — its message always seemed to be one that ought to be experienced beyond the older, moneyed patrons filling most of its seats. A progression was needed, a change of some sort.

And so, earlier this year, Hopkins took a lesson from the snack-heavy menu at Holeman & Finch and changed Eugene's format to an ingredient-driven collection of small plates. Rather than choose the traditional appetizer and entrée, guests are now presented with a list of around 30 dishes organized under the headings “fish,” “vegetables” and “meat & game.”

It was a risky move. Many chefs have tried to capitalize on the small plates concept, and many have failed. As a matter of pacing, of tone, of how to present food that tells a cohesive story without being too meat-heavy or too rich or too one-note, the small plates dance is one that easily falls out of rhythm. But not here. Hopkins manages to take the day's best ingredients and compose them into gorgeous, intricate plates of food. The size allows you to taste more of what’s offered, and explore more of the creativity and precision on display. This can only be a good thing, because these dishes represent the very best of modern Southern regional cooking.

Hopkins’ love for ingredients is front and center. Take the crisp kale, a pile of deep green knobby kale leaves, fried for mere seconds — just long enough to turn the leaves into shattering chips of musky, smoky flavor with a refreshingly bitter aftertaste. Buttermilk dressing softens the dish just enough, while bacon and pickled onion offer complement and contrast, respectively.

Some presentations take aesthetics and creativity to the extreme, as with a dish a few weeks back of beet-marinated flounder, the fish turned garishly magenta and imbued with the beets' bright, earthy flavor. It was set off with orange and jalapeño, and made texturally interesting with the addition of tiny, crispy bits of rice — at once thoughtful, precise, and outrageously beautiful to behold, both on the plate and in the mouth.

Other dishes are all about showcasing the freshness of the season, as with the jumble of summer squash, cooked to al dente and left to its own devices except for a smear of pea shoot puree. Or the peach and Vidalia salad, which has become a summer staple at the restaurant — a voluptuous celebration of two kinds of sweetness, the juicy peach and the more cunning onion, perfectly flattering each other. Candied bacon and pecans finish the dish, grounding it and giving it its textural interest.

Hopkins isn’t afraid to build a whole plate around a flawlessly cooked farm egg (served over skillet greens with peanuts and — what else — bacon), or to take pimentos from their generally cheesy position and elevate them to full-on vegetable garnish under a ravioli of chanterelles. You know that sweet, puckery kick pimentos give cheese or olives? They can do that to a whole dish.

Other aspects of the restaurant receive the same attention. Eugene’s cheese selection is one of the pleasures of dining here, and the staff loves to talk about it. The wine list meanders thoughtfully through both known and quirky territory — it’s hardly encyclopedic but it is a list full of joy, and affordable to boot. The dining room seems to have loosened up over the years, although the bar — now led by Nick Hearin — is still my favorite place to dine. The cocktails are close to magical. The Alexandra’s Cocktail, a mixture of rhubarb-flavored Aperol, St. Germain and lemon juice, is like what I envisioned fairies would drink when I was a little girl — fruity, tingly, fresh and aromatic. I could take a bath in the stuff.

As if to add good fortune to godsend, the restaurant is now far more affordable than before. Small plates run $4 to $22, and the few entrée-sized dishes are in the $20 to $40 range. It's possible to stuff yourself with exceptional food for not much money here. Four or five of these plates can easily feed two people. With wine, that’s a $100 meal, and it’s likely to be one of the best meals you’ll have all year.

Hopkins told me on the phone, “I’ve only been an executive chef for five years. When I started out, I wasn’t so sure of myself. Now I know what I want to cook, and I have the confidence to do it.”

That confidence translates to a smartness on the menu, as well as a tangible warmth, an emotional connection to the ingredients that shines through with almost every presentation.

With Restaurant Eugene, Hopkins has proven that five years is a very short time to rise to this level.