Restaurant Review - The great charcuterie smackdown
Five of Atlanta's best purveyors duke it out
"Made in house" is a term that may be overused, but there is one place where it truly counts: charcuterie. All over Atlanta, in restaurants spanning cuisines from Italy to France to Latin America, and especially the cuisine of the contemporary South, the "made in house" badge shines brightly on plates of charcuterie. Running an ambitious in-house charcuterie program takes time (with some products curing for well over a year), it takes space (to hang all that meat in the right conditions), and it takes expertise (to craft a product that betters what can be sourced from dedicated outside producers). It's a perfect arena in which to pit some of our city's best chefs against each other ... in a CHARCUTERIE SMACKDOWN! (Sorry, I just got excited there.)
To select our challengers, the most important qualification was that they have a good variety of house-made charcuterie. There are many chefs doing one or two items in-house or relying primarily on outside purveyors, but we decided to focus on restaurants that offer a full charcuterie plate. Four of the five restaurants that made the cut tilt heavily toward a Southern persuasion. After all, curing pork is as Southern as baking biscuits. While Southern chefs are now going way beyond the pig for their charcuterie plates, they also have an arsenal of Southern pickles to pepper the plate with, and those chow-chows and pickled okra can make even salted cod or beef hearts feel close to home.
The rules of Charcuterie Smackdown are ... there are no rules. We do, however, have certain traits we look for in a charcuterie champion. Our champion should have good taste (of course), versatility (a variety of types of charcuterie), good looks (what is more beautiful than a delicately arranged flower of pearly white pork fat?), and marriage potential (the ability to partner nicely with other elements on the plate, notably pickles and mustards). It should be noted that charcuterie plates at any restaurant will likely vary week to week or even day to day, as different terrines or sausages or salumi come and go. So, without further ado, we present our Charcuterie Smackdown contenders, each sporting a smackdown-worthy battle nickname.
Sergeant Slaughter: Abattoir
$20 for a bountiful plate of six selections, plus accompaniments
The first thing you notice about Abattoir's charcuterie plate is that it actually comes on a plate (this is our only contender to ditch the requisite rectangle of wood). Stark white porcelain is the backdrop for a beautiful jumble of colors, textures, and flavors. Tight white curls of lardo edged in herbs and pepper anchor one end of the plate, with equally delicate bright orange slivers of pickled carrot by their side. A lightly torched disk of head cheese sits front and center, surrounded by a jar of pork rillettes, two styles of sausage, dark slices of bresaola, an array of pickles and mustards, and a sprinkling of microgreens. Executive chef Tyler Williams runs a broad and ambitious charcuterie program, with a rotation of 10 or so items all made in-house that he can choose from at any given time to populate the day's plate. Most of these delight with finesse and flavor. The head cheese is delicately spiced with cilantro and lemon grass, then a salty finish, melding perfectly into a chunk of warm baguette. Abattoir's lardo intrigues with floral hints of rosemary, fennel seed, and clove. A country pâté wrapped in pancetta makes beautiful use of the subtle sweetness of caramelized onion and apple purée hiding within the pâté. The lone letdown is the jar of pork shoulder rillettes, suffering from an intentionally strong hit of vinegar acidity. 1170 Howell Mill Road. 404-892-335. www.starprovisions.com.
Captain Beefheart: Empire State South
$25 for a plate for two, five selections plus accompaniments
Executive chef Ryan Smith calls Empire State South's charcuterie program a passion project, and the passion shows through in the adventurous bites on offer. The charcuterie plate here is always five selections from the kitchen, scaling up or down in volume based on how many people intend to partake. An orderly array of meats sits beside a stack of grilled bread, a pile of various pickles, a smear of rich Guinness mustard, and a scoop of pickled mustard seed with raspberry. We are firmly in the South here, but Southern-ness takes shape in many ways. Pork terrine with mushrooms and a pig skin wrapping is earthy times two. Barnyard brilliance resides in a fragrant 16-month cured country ham, sliced thin like prosciutto. A breakfasty ginger sorghum sausage exudes deep notes of sugar and spice and porcine delight. Sharp pickled carrots cut through any fat lingering on your tongue, a piercing counterpoint to all that pork. This plate shows a chef that is pushing to make charcuterie a distinctive and emblematic component of what his restaurant is all about. We hear he's working on beef heart "slim jims," and that sounds exactly right. 999 Peachtree St. 404-541-1105. www.empirestatesouth.com.
$25 for five items of your choosing, plus accompaniments
Holeman & Finch prides itself on parts and pickles, both of which harken back to summers on the farm and the whole notion of preserving something good. This pride shows itself in the fact that there is a "chef de charcuterie" — James Ellington — who runs the charcuterie show. And Holeman & Finch's plate certainly fits the description of something good. The most heavenly bite of this smackdown arrives in thin ribbons of six-month cured "black label" lardo, which alights on your tongue like an angel out of the fields of Provence, leaving a trace of all that is good in this world on your fingers as it melts ever so slightly between the plate and your mouth. Head cheese here is an elegant affair that makes other head cheeses look like the morning after a messy frat party. The bresaola also kicks bresaola butt, eminently beefy and earthy with a peppery edge. Indeed, every item seems to reach near the pinnacle of what its type can be. Nothing is shocking or particularly unique, but everything is simply right. Pickled ramps and sweet, snappy chow-chow (not to mention Holeman & Finch's ever excellent bread) pair perfectly with the meats, again showing the interplay possible between the Southern staples of parts and pickles. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-948-1175. www.holeman-finch.com.
The Notorious P.I.G.: Local Three
$15 for a slightly smaller plate of five selections, plus accompaniments
The Notorious P.I.G. nickname here is Local Three's own name for its charcuterie plate, an admittedly bad and brilliant play on pig that is totally consistent with the restaurant's pop culture playfulness. Local Three's charcuterie plate is less expensive than most of the other contenders' plates, but the portion sizes are also a bit smaller. Chef/partner Todd Mussman is a longtime charcuterie devotee and has a revolving rotation of items from which to choose for the daily P.I.G. Eastern European sausages seem to be a particular strength, as evidenced by both a delightfully smoky Polish sausage with a great snap to its casing and a similarly good (though very similar) Romanian sausage. Both of these also pair particularly well with the smear of French violet mustard that Local Three provides, a richly floral and slightly fruity example of an accompaniment that amps up the flavor. Other entries, though, prove less enticing. The "city ham" is mild-mannered and boring, maybe suited for a sandwich, but not able to shine on its own. A pork and garlic terrine is the kind of rough, gelatinous composition that reminds too much of, dare I say it, dog food. Needless to say, we did not lick our plate clean. 3290 Northside Parkway. 404-968-2700. www.localthree.com.
El Chupacabra: Pura Vida
$14 for a four-item plate, additional items available individually
Chef Hector Santiago brings a passion for peppers to his Puerto Rican-influenced charcuterie. Ghost peppers show up in an "evil coppa," a rich morcilla (blood sausage) is accented by a sweet and tangy miso pepper purée, and smoked paprika makes its way into a fragrant chorizo. Thanks in part to those peppers, and also to the decidedly Latin American style, Santiago's charcuterie is easily the most distinctive in town — the flavors are bold and funky, the slicing thick and rustic. The Puerto Rican morcilla is one of the most intense charcuterie experiences around, and delightfully so, the earthy funk of the sausage playing nice with the balanced sweet heat of the pepper purée. Smoked goat and pork show up in tender slices of "chupacabra," accented with a short, sharp burn of spice. A rustic porchetta di testa (that's pig's head, y'all) proudly features crisp and crunchy slices of pig's ear around the edges. This plate stands apart, and also perfectly captures what makes Pura Vida one of the city's most compelling chef-driven restaurants. 656 N. Highland Ave. 404-870-9797. www.puravidatapas.com.
The Judges: Besha Rodell, Food Editor, and Brad Kaplan, Cheap Eats columnist
Judging the Charcuterie Smackdown was a strenuous task (OK, not really, unless you count working off all that protein and salt as part of the task). Four of our six contenders put up a great fight, each showing distinct strengths, each showing what a wonderful thing a plate of charcuterie can be. That said, one contender did rise above the rest. Can you guess our winner?
Enough with the suspense already. Our Charcuterie Smackdown winner is the contender that simply wowed us the most, had the most perfectly executed meats, and provided top-notch accompaniments to enhance the experience. It's the one, the only, the Great Pickler!
Smackdown Winner: Holeman & Finch
Holeman & Finch takes the prize with a charcuterie plate that is simply without fault, and delightfully Southern to boot. It is a plate that manages to be elegant and down-home, delicate and powerful, inviting and intoxicating. It is simply most excellent among a field of many excellent contenders.
Runners-up: Empire State South, Pura Vida
Not far behind, and I mean just a hair behind our winner, are two more great choices for charcuterie in Atlanta. The plates at both of these contenders brilliantly evoke the ethos of their respective restaurants. Empire State South shows a firm willingness to take risks and expand upon the traditional Southern charcuterie plate. Pura Vida's charcuterie is bold and uniquely influenced by Hector Santiago's Puerto Rican heritage and playful Latin cuisine.
Second runner-up: Abattoir
At Abattoir, where the name itself almost demands a good charcuterie program, it's a unique artistry with spice and fruit that transports you beyond the basic notion of sliced meat on the plate. We loved the country pâté, and the head cheese was a paragon of nuance and flavor, although one judge found it a tad salty.
Heading up the rear: Local Three
Now we must address the contender who fell well short of the rest. Local Three's charcuterie is frequently the subject of rave reviews from that restaurant's devoted fans. The Polish sausage certainly warrants praise, and the violet mustard is a small but smart key element to the plate. But when the competition is this tough, faults in texture or flavor are very tough to overcome, and Local Three fell short in several respects — a bland ham, an unappealing terrine, a greasy messy cotechino.
Atlanta is fortunate to have such a strong burgeoning charcuterie scene, from these restaurants that invest heavily in their programs to chefs that are trying out one or two things at a time. A year or two from now, we may have a whole slew of new competitors fighting for the crown of best charcuterie plate. Until then, we can all reap the rewards of having so many chefs in town who care about charcuterie and proudly wear the "made in house" badge.