First Look: Whiskey Bird

Morningside's newest eatery marries Japanese gastronomy and Spanish sensibilities

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Much like a red paper lantern hanging outside an entrance in Japan signifies an establishment serving small meals and liquor, Atlanta's Morningside neighborhood offers its own symbol. Spot the blue neon lit-up bird and you'll know you've found Whiskey Bird, a new joint serving yakitori, small plates and plenty of spirits. But must we define it with a moniker? Is Whiskey Bird a yakitori-ya or an izakaya? Is it tapas, fusion, a gastropub? Does it matter?

The restaurant comes from executive chef Chad Crete and GM Anthony Vipond, hospitality veterans from Decatur's Iberian Pig who first met at Cornell University. "The name pays homage to the great American spirit, whiskey, which we highlight in our classic cocktails," they say. "Bird is a reference to traditional yakitori."

No value assignedWhiskey Bird bears little resemblance to the space's former occupant, Timone's Pizza. A few potted plants divide the main dining room and the atmosphere is convivial and loud. Sleek, minimalist decor features dark concrete floors, industrial-looking exposed ductwork and an open kitchen lined with white subway tiles. Everything is grayscale, from the tufted black leather booths to the curvy bar fitted with comfy bucket stools. Tables are marble-look solid-surface with wood and black chairs. A large patio wraps around the rear.

The muted backdrop makes way for colorful dishes. There is an appealing simplicity with everything that comes to the table and the menu works well for sharing. Servers remind that everything is tapas-style and things may arrive in bunches. Selections are divided into yakitori, Hong Kong sliders, tacos, veggies and large plates.

Yakitori (skewered grilled meats) is cooked on a robata grill over slow-burning, hardwood charcoal called binchotan. Order by the stick or grab a roulette of four for $12. Shiitake mushrooms in a spicy soy marinade are intensely smoky, meaty and juicy. Three crispy meatballs arrive with a moist interior flavored by garlic and ginger. Exceptionally tender charred octopus rounds come with three slices of five-spice-tinged Chinese sausage. Two petite peppers stuffed with mild chorizo and cotija cheese resemble pretty little dusted chiles rellenos. Portions are enormous and priced at just $2 to $4.50 a stick.

No value assignedThose in search of more meat should opt for the butter burger sliders ($7): thick, juicy patties nestled against roasted mushrooms, a sliver of white truffle, a slice of dill and smoked Gouda fondue for dipping. A fried chicken slider ($6) reminds one of a Chick-Fil-A sandwich with crispy chicken, creamy sauce and a ridged dill slice on a pillowy steamed bun. The portobello sliders ($6) bring a surprisingly balanced confluence of taste and texture. Two large mushroom caps in BBQ glaze are skewered with tangy fried avocado soft, creamy, crunchy, savory and filling.

Tacos ($4-$5) come two to an order in light and crispy fried gyoza shells. Peruvian chicken is vibrantly flavored with lime and mild aji chiles and super tender, but could use a little heat. Hawaiian tuna tacos are like mini poke bowls inside crisp shells with cubes of fresh rare tuna, cucumber and mango tossed in a cream of avocado speckled with black sesame seeds and seaweed floss. It tastes like deep fried sea.

Whiskey Bird doesn't relegate its vegetarian dishes to side items. The "greens and veggies" section of the menu offers an array of choices. A huge shaved Brussels sprouts salad ($9) brings excitement with the sweetness of Asian pear, subtly intense scallions and crunchy-spiced pecans, tossed in a bright lemon tahini dressing. While I wanted to love the chilled asparagus ($11), it just didn't come together for me. Large stalks of steamed asparagus came topped with pickled peppers, roasted tomatoes, quarters of boiled egg (lots of them) and a dense coating of breadcrumbs.

No value assignedWhile one could easily build a meal of two or three small plates, the large courses should not be ignored and are also easily shared. Slices of grilled ahi tuna ($21) come snuggled in edamame rice grits and drizzled with green onion vinaigrette. Whole roasted cauliflower ($15) is seasoned with "everything bagel" coating. It arrives on the scene steakhouse-like with a serrated knife sticking out and strips of crisply fried scallions mounded on top. You can go family-style with a $40 feast for four if you arrive before 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on weekends.

A place with "whiskey" in its name better have a decent list, and this one does. There's a large international selection of both whiskey and whisky, along with plenty of whiskey-focused classic cocktails. Options include timeless, reliable pleasers: Manhattan, Negroni, Margarita, Vesper, Sazerac, Dark and Stormy. The Whiskey Bird Sour was a balanced, generous and frothy mix of bourbon and house-made sour mix topped with a couple of Luxardo cherries. There is a strong selection of craft beer on tap, in cans and in bottles, and a carefully curated wine list of Old and New World varietals. A glass of Aligote from Burgundy paired well with the subtle Asian-meets-Spanish flavors super dry and herbal with a slight lemony finish and aroma.

No matter what we call Whiskey Bird is Japas a term yet? the Japanese-inspired gastronomy fits superbly with Spanish small plate sensibilities. Dining here is easy and casual, prices are reasonable and the combination of flavors and tastes is appealing. So call it what you want. I will just keep calling for reservations.

1409 N. Highland Ave. N.E. 404-600-5797. www.eatwhiskeybird.com

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