Restaurant Review - Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder at Kimball House
Decatur oyster joint sparks some raw emotion
Every few months, a certain type of food porn starts trending on local social media. A couple of years ago during the Neapolitan pizza craze, it was upskirt crust shots flashing char marks. Currently, the hot photos feature platters of oysters at Kimball House — the more levels, the better.
Before the Decatur restaurant opened in September 2013, Atlanta had standard oyster options. Kimball House, however, is determined to make Atlanta a bona fide oyster town. On most evenings, the oyster menu runs 20 deep with varieties from Georgia, British Colombia, and elsewhere. Each oyster is presented on the menu like a wine: “citrus, ripened tomato, charred scallion” describes the Howland’s Landing of Duxbury, Mass. The oysters are served on glistening, ice-packed pewter trays decorated with pieces of dark green seaweed. A wedge of lemon and a tiny brown medicine bottle filled with mignonette are all that’s needed to bring out each briny bivalve’s distinct qualities.
Over the last decade, the Decatur train depot has been home to a series of unsuccessful restaurants. The late-1800s building seemed destined for haunted real estate status. That was until Matt Christison, Miles Macquarrie, Bryan Rackley, and Jesse Smith — who worked together at the Brick Store Pub — came up with a plan to open a bar. With guidance and financial backing from Mike Gallagher, Tom Moore, and Dave Blanchard, who own the Brick Store Pub and Leon’s Full Service, the group transformed the old depot into a love letter to cocktails, oysters, and the hotel restaurants of yesteryear.
The space borrows much of its romantic and masculine aesthetic from those old American hotels. In fact, the restaurant was named after Atlanta’s Kimball House Hotel, which spanned an entire city block near Five Points, 1870-1883, until it was destroyed by a fire. A second and larger Kimball House was built in 1885, but was razed in 1959 to build a parking deck.
The restaurant and its inhabitants seem to vibrate with creativity and passion, a quality the hotel also possessed. According to the restaurant’s tumblr account, the Kimball House Hotel was “host to famous musicians, athletes, politicians, local heroes, and artists as well as scoundrels, vagrants, con men and loose women.” I’d wager any of those people would have relished a cocktail from Macquarrie’s stunning bar, where he conjures his liquid magic. The bar reminds me of an old-fashioned store in which you could see Charlie buying his golden ticket. There’s even a ladder behind the bar that moves side-to-side so the bartenders can reach the tall, booze-packed wood shelves.
If there is any testament to how far we have come as a cocktail town, Kimball House is it. There is no place else in Atlanta where you can find such an extensive and traditionally prepared absinthe menu and bartenders so well versed in everything drink. Even the servers open up like encyclopedias when helping you figure out which cocktail, on or off the menu, is right for you. How else would I have discovered how much I like the fruity and crisp Jack Rose, which Kimball House serves in a vintage tulip-shaped glass? I also learned it was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway. On one visit, I was reminded how alluring and mysterious Tiki drinks can be, thanks to the towering, maraschino cherry–topped lobotomy that is the Painkiller, a mix of Pusser’s Navy Rum, pineapple, lime, coconut, orange, and Angostura bitters. Currently, I like my oysters with either the Mid Lime Crisis — a slightly salty and pithy drink made with Dulce Vida high-proof tequila, lime, preserved lime, grapefruit, and hops — or a beer from the short beer and wine list.
Much of the kitchen’s inspiration comes from the hotel restaurants of yore explored in the book Menu Design in America, 1850–1985. Where else but a turn-of-the-century hotel would you find oysters, caviar service on a silver platter, and a steak dinner? Chefs Philip Meeker and Jeffrey Wall, who met while working at the now shuttered Brasserie Joël, cook from the restaurant’s onsite vegetable garden whenever possible. The garden supplements the local produce and proteins the chefs acquire from their vendors. One night at dinner, a cook’s haul of foraged chanterelles was spun into a transcendent fricassee served with creamy fava beans, roasted beets, beet greens, squash, radishes, dill flowers, and silky bundles of sweet spring garlic tortellini in a buttery lemon broth. The hoppin’ John and mushrooms with charred broccoli, Sea Island red peas, Carolina gold rice, celery, wilted greens, and yogurt — with a side of oysters and the day’s crudo — is all I ever want to eat for dinner when I drop by.
The menu changes daily and is divided into hors d’oeuvres, fish, meat, and vegetables. The pricing is on par with restaurants of its ilk, although some diners may feel there’s a lack of value because of the small portions. The hors d’oeuvres section is the menu’s most consistent. Dishes such as the pommes Macaire, creamy batons of pureed potatoes fried to a golden crisp in vegetable oil, are fun to share alongside something like the steak tartare, which is paired with black olives and preserved lemon. A short block of foie gras terrine comes with blueberries two ways (one pickled, one raw) and is garnished with walnut oil and delicate leaves of sorrel. As the foie warms, it resembles melting fleur de sel caramels in appearance and tastes like sweet, iron-tinged butter.
The fish and meat courses need work. Here, the kitchen’s love of produce nearly becomes its downfall because too much is often packed onto the plate. A roasted duck breast served with fiddlehead ferns, black radishes, scarlet turnips, trumpet mushrooms, lamb’s quarters, and leek confit amounted to a jumble of indistinguishable flavors.
Desserts need work. A big, intensely chocolaty brownie monogrammed in powdered sugar with “KH” had a layer of caramel at its center, which would have been successful if it had been gooey instead of hardened. The amber layers of golden puff pastry sandwiching the piped orbs of pastry cream in the mille-feuille were overdone and difficult to cut with a fork. The crème brûlée was either not chilled long enough or runny from the summer heat.
Maître d’ William Bubier, previously of Cakes & Ale, has an enthusiastic and genuine way of making you feel welcome from start to finish. Bubier is so friendly you can’t help but feel disarmed. He’s likely to give you a warm pat on the back as he leads you to your table to relax into a tufted leather booth.
The restaurant does not take reservations. According to Rackley, that decision stemmed from wanting to make dining at Kimball House more “whimsical.” Well, weekend waits can stretch to an hour-plus, so be prepared to bide your time at the bar and explore the cocktail and oyster choices. I’ve found it’s in these lulls when Kimball House is its most seductive. The staff works with an incredible synergy that transports you somewhere far away. And that magical feeling is not something you can capture in a picture.