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A Chef’s Last Supper

A Chef’s Last Supper

zeb stevenson

Note: This story originally appeared in Creative Loafing in May of 2013. Their archives are screwed, so here’s an unedited version of the original story – on the day it was announced that Watershed is changing hands and chef Zeb Stevenson will be preparing his last Watershed supper this weekend.

Chef Zeb Stevenson was preparing his Last Supper, though it wasn’t really a last supper by any strict definition of the term. It wasn’t a solemn occasion, nothing with an air of finality. Rather, it was a dinner to celebrate the upcoming end to his tenure with Livingston and Proof & Provision, and the yet-to-be-determined new things to come for restaurant and chef alike. It was a chance to look back, as far back as childhood, to host the kind of meal that Stevenson wishes more meals could be like – a gathering of friends, a communal sharing of food. The mere two dozen tickets had gone quickly, everyone there eager to break bread together. As Stevenson prepped for the dinner, he told me, “looking back, my best meals were always the ones where everyone was laughing and enjoying the company. That’s what matters most.”

Life, or nature, or maybe even God, wasn’t being very helpful with this Last Supper on this particular Sunday. Flash flooding and storms were creating havoc around Atlanta, so the dinner for two dozen was being moved from the Georgian Terrace rooftop to a make-do indoors. A street festival nearby tied up traffic, causing guests to circle for blocks before being diverted by hotel staff down an alleyway into the parking lot. The charcoal rotisserie wasn’t functioning the way it should, so Stevenson had to improvise a solution with MacGyver-like ingenuity. Even the main course, the whole lamb to be put on that rotisserie, had its issues. And while the story of the lamb that Stevenson shared is one of a chef’s creativity in dealing with a dilemma, it is not one for overly sensitive souls.

Earlier that week, Stevenson had gone out to the farm to meet the shepherd, whose preferred method of solemnly transitioning his flock from field to table involved a rifle. The shepherd had been bragging of his marksmanship, but on this particular day, the rifle was not shooting straight. His shot missed. And missed again. And again. And then he hit an unintended target, a spring lamb which was presumably the child of the chosen animal nearby. This was upsetting, of course, as it was now both the elder and younger lamb that would be leaving the field.

So what do you do when you’re planning to roast a whole lamb on a spit and now you have two? If you’re Zeb Stevenson, you de-bone the younger, surround it with herbs and wheat berries, and truss it up inside the elder, ready for the coals. Is that wrong? Demented? Genius? Or is it even sentimental in its own way, bringing the two lambs back together for what would be their last supper? The chef seemed to recognize the horrible nobility of it all, joking that he could dub the dish a “mother and child reunion.”

Whatever your view of the situation, Stevenson made the most of it when it came time to cook, which fit the overall tenor of the supper that he termed “do-it-yourself” cuisine. More than going out to the field to find the lamb, the chef and his crew had made their own fresh butter, their own cream cheese. They had made beet vinegar and cider vinegar aged in a whiskey barrel. Pickled strawberries and fiddlehead ferns. Fermented and dehydrated and fried sauerkraut. Stevenson had even illustrated and printed his own menus by hand with linoleum blocks.

The supper itself came to twelve plus courses, served family style. Friends, foodies, fellow restaurateurs all communed for Stevenson and his stories and his food. And he was every bit the storyteller at the head of the table as he was the cook in the kitchen. Did you know he was a preacher’s son? That the lamb had been nicknamed Kelly Kapowski (don’t ask)? That the honeysuckle gracing the turnips came from Stevenson’s own backyard?

The stories and the supper were inseparable. And the sharing of plates turned into sharing of more stories around the table as well, which was exactly what the chef had intended.

And the food? The pickled fiddlehead ferns tasted like the outdoors, a sweet and sharp distillation of forest floor. The warm, crusty oat and blackberry bread with soft butter was simply everything you hope for when bread is brought to the table – happiness. The dishes started coming and kept on coming, passed from person to person, sparking questions and chatter and oohs and aahs. Tender corned beef tongue with feta and pickled strawberries and fruity mustard, then the springtime joy of firm fava beans with pickled peas, then kale with beets and yogurt and a clever dressing built off sous vide peanuts. Thick sausages and fatty pork belly showed up in a choucroute garnis with celery root sauerkraut, then the spit-roasted lamb(s) and a “ham in hay” that had been baked in an alfalfa and salt shell commanded the room’s attention. The chef and his team carved and served with a gleeful camaraderie that you simply don’t see often enough during meals out.

A series of sweets soon arrived, crème fraiche with rhubarb, strawberry cheesecake, a crispy sugar cookie dipped in a runny pecan pudding. And then Stevenson stood in front of the room and wrapped things up, his Last Supper coming to a close. Coffee was served, beans he had roasted himself. Smiles and applause filled the room. I had asked Stevenson what it was he wanted to do next, after Livingston and Proof & Provision. All he said was, “I want to cook food that touches something in people.”

More New Coffee: Spiller Park Toco Hill

More New Coffee: Spiller Park Toco Hill

SPILLER PARK TOCO HILLS

I kinda love Spiller Park Coffee. The cheesy baseball theme, the friendly faces, the rockin’ toasts, and, of course, the excellent coffee and espresso. And now there’s more to love. Spiller Park just opened its second outpost in the mid-renovation Toco Hills shopping-mega-corner at LaVista and North Druid Hills, joining the Ponce City Market location in what may become a hometown hero coffee chain. Owner/partners Hugh Acheson and Dale Donchey tell me there are plans in the works to bring even more Spiller Parks to the fine people of Atlanta over the next few years. I ain’t complaining.

I visited the new Spiller Park last week as they continued their soft opening, still waiting on new menus, still yet to roll out some new bells and whistles. Sure enough though, the baseball theme was present, the friendly faces were smiling, the toast was rockin’, and the coffee was excellent. Not surprising. What did surprise me was how fantastic Spiller Park’s little corner of Toco Hill is – thanks in part to an awesomely retro shopping center sign and the brilliant decision by someone to keep up the ornamental metal (awning? overhang?) on the stretch of shops right next to Spiller Park (you can just make it out in the photo above, or bask in its glory in closer-up photos below).

Donchey says the Toco Hills vibe was part of the attraction. “They wanted to preserve as much [of the Toco Hills shopping center] as possible, but the ornamental metal had gotten really brittle… that’s the last of it. That’s part of what makes the Toco Hill location so special to me – it’s another old place in Atlanta that just gets driven by, when it has such a great neighborhood attached to it, has history, and has so many stories to tell. Seemed like a no-brainer follow-up to Ponce City Market.”

Here are six things (and a few more photos) to get you to over to Toco Hill for your coffee and toast.

1. Awesome toast. And other simplish things to eat. Toast does not need avocado, although I won’t be upset if you choose Spiller Park’s version of avocado toast. Just peep this Nutter ‘N Fig Toast on super-good General Muir rye bread. Donchey says, “the food will expand at Toco into providing house made muffins, waffles, salads, shakshuka, and whatever other clean, simplish, crazy things we can come up with. We’d like to be known as a place to get a great, delicious light bite and coffee or tea.”

2. Baseball mitt koozies. And hot coffee. “We’ll be running different single origin coffees out of each space [Ponce City Market and Toco Hill],” says Donchey, “as well as a siphon brewing option. I liked the idea of being able to put both Spiller Parks on a coffee crawl and walk away with different drinking experiences.” This past week, there were several varieties from both George Howell Coffee and Intelligentsia, but they will be rotating in other roasters as well.

3. Vintage accessories. As I grabbed some sugar, I talked to a random guy about Stanley thermos styles for way too long. This one wasn’t sufficiently vintage for him, but plenty good by me.

4. Rainbow bright chairs and plentiful daylight. It’s nice to sit outside, isn’t it? Even on the somewhat dreary, post-Irma, still-no-power day this shot was taken.

5. Baseball cards. Lots of baseball cards. Did you know Spiller Park (AKA Ponce de Leon Park, AKA Spiller Field) was the home field for the Atlanta minor league baseball team for most of the 20th century? Now you know.

6. Those awesome ornamental metal touches. The camera loves them.

 

Spiller Park Toco Hill

2929 N. Druid Hills Rd.

7AM – 7PM daily

 

 

 

New Coffee Alert: East Pole Coffee Co.

New Coffee Alert: East Pole Coffee Co.

East Pole Coffee Co. is now open for business with their new Atlanta coffee bar and roastery. They soft opened this week, with an official opening next week. Here are six things (and a few more photos) to get you to cross under the Buford Spring connector to Ottley Drive for your morning (or afternoon) coffee.

Thing 1: The Ottley Drive – Armour Drive loop is now becoming a thriving drinks hot spot for Atlanta – with East Pole joining next-door neighbor SweetWater Brewing and friends ASW Distillery down the street to provide a beer-whiskey-coffee trifecta to make Atlanta proud.

Thing 2: East Pole gets design, which is clear from their packaging and their coffee bar. East Pole’s lovely shop fits perfectly with the industrial-chic architecture of the new Armour Yards campus surrounding it, managing to feel both new and lived-in at the same time.

Thing 3: East Pole churns out some excellent coffee beans. They focus on single origin roasts, which will keep you coming back for more to see what’s on the list, whether you’re in the mood for espresso, drip, or a pourover. You can get them by the bag here (as well as places like Taproom down in Kirkwood).

Thing 4: There’s not much else to eat around Ottley Drive – the Fox Bros. Queosk is the main destination during the week, and the Terminus City BBQ pop-ups are currently only on Saturdays – so pastries from Ashley Sue’s Baked Goods will be a welcome addition for folks in the neighborhood. (And, shhh, don’t tell, but there MIGHT be breakfast burritos on the way as a future addition to the menu.)

Thing 5: East Pole loves being Atlanta-centric, and the “Atlanta” window design is bound to earn some Instagram glory (there’s an especially cool reflection of the window cut-out if you sit in just the right spot in the cafe and look at the reflection in the roastery room glass).

Thing 6: If you come on the right day, you just might find the folks behind the counter rocking matching jeans jackets. Just saying.

East Pole Coffee Co.

255 Ottley Drive, Ste. 105 

Monday-Friday, 7AM – 3PM
Saturday & Sunday, 8AM – 2PM

About Octane: Unsolicited Advice for Revelator Coffee

About Octane: Unsolicited Advice for Revelator Coffee

Revelator Octane Coffee

If you live in Atlanta and give a hoot about coffee, you’ve surely heard the news: Revelator has bought Octane. It’s a shock, but not a surprise. Octane was a pioneer in Atlanta’s coffee scene and has steadily grown over the past dozen years, expanding from the west side, to Grant Park, to Buckhead, to midtown, not to mention two shops in Birmingham. They have developed and nurtured a loyal community of fans despite an onslaught of competitors both big and small, most of whom arrived after Octane proved the market was ready for quality coffee. Which is why it’s easy to see that Octane is an attractive acquisition target. They’ve got a strong presence in the Southeast’s leading market, and admirable know-how in terms of operating both the retail and roasting sides of the coffee business. More importantly, Octane owns something that coffee companies dream of – a powerful brand. Revelator? Not so much.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering how Revelator managed to buy out Atlanta’s leading craft coffee purveyor, you’re not alone. But the simple fact is – Revelator has money, fueled by a California-based venture capital firm that seems bent on aggressive growth. Octane is owned primarily by Diane and Tony Riffel, the couple that started the company those many moons ago. And behemoths buying up craft coffee companies is not a new thing. The most prominent proponent of the approach is privately held JAB Holding Company – the money that has scooped up stakes in former indy darlings Peet’s, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown, along with Caribou, Krispy Kreme, and the Einstein/Noah’s bagel brands.

While I spend a good chunk of my time writing about food and drinks, my day job is actually brand strategy consulting. I’ve worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies on acquisition and innovation strategies, customer experience mapping, value proposition development, you name it. When a company is looking at acquiring another, the resulting brand portfolio should be among the most important considerations. Unfortunately, more often than not, the question of brand optimization is an afterthought to financial and operational considerations. Sure, assets like real estate and equipment are critical, as are capabilities like operational know-how and expertise. But understanding the nature of brand-customer relationships is where great acquisitions are made… will the acquired brand bring something new and complementary to the portfolio? Which of the brands in the new portfolio offer the best opportunities for future growth? Or, how readily will the acquired brand’s loyal customers move from the existing brand to the acquiring brand if pushed to do so?

Go back to JAB Holdings, the big boy that bought up brands like Intelligentsia and Stumptown – brands that had built-in loyal fan bases. You’ll notice that JAB is now managing a portfolio of strong brands, and not trying to subsume acquired businesses under a single brand moniker. Intelligentsia and Stumptown are both known for high-quality sourcing and roasting, as well as for running effective retail shops – and while the argument could surely be made that continuing to invest in both brands is not the most efficient path to growth, both brands have equity that is worth building on. Killing one to favor the other would be a mistake, and JAB seems to know that.

When a company makes an acquisition, that move always serves a larger purpose. Maybe they’re trying to expand into a new geography or product area, maybe they need intellectual capital or technology to take advantage of an emerging market opportunity, or maybe they are simply tasked with growing the top line. The very first thing to understand when looking at an acquisition is that larger purpose: what is the company trying to achieve?

In Revelator’s case, all I have to go on to figure out the company’s goals are the public comments from president Josh Owen. I’ve seen three things that seem to be driving their decision to purchase Octane:

  1. They want to be “a hospitality company first and a coffee company second… and that experience comes in a lot of forms,” including food, alcohol, and evening hours
  2. They think acquiring local companies that have community connections is a stronger path to growth than entering markets from scratch
  3. They see an opportunity to grow significantly in wholesale channels (like supplying coffee to restaurants and other retail)

Octane is a homerun on points 1 and 2, and a solid at-bat on point 3. They’ve seamlessly blended beer and cocktails into their persona from day one, and they’ve established very strong relationships within Atlanta’s and Birmingham’s restaurant and food communities. Wholesale? Octane is there, and has shown success in the sourcing and roasting skills necessary to succeed, but nothing approaching the success of bigger players like Counter Culture or Batdorf & Bronson, who have become heavy hitters when it comes to the wholesale distribution side of the business. So, yes, the acquisition makes sense, but what about the question of branding? Isn’t point 2 above dependent on nurturing acquired brands rather than taking them out?

Owen has said that they intend to phase out the Octane brand within 12 to 18 months. Simply put, I have a hard time seeing that as the right choice. Has Revelator thoroughly considered the existing equities of their own brand relative to the Octane brand? Have they done so through the lens of the intended target markets – both geographic and psychographic/demographic – that they hope to win with? If they have and have simply concluded that phasing out Octane is the way to go, good for them. But, at least in the Atlanta market, that sounds like a path to failure. Here, Octane has equity; Revelator has apathy and even (among many coffee industry insiders and fanatics) enmity. And there are plenty of competitors who have good relationships with the local community that Octane customers can jump to – think Spiller Park, Dancing Goats, Brash, Chattahoochee… I could go on.

So, about Octane. For Revelator, my advice is this: think long and hard about which brand offers you the best chance for success – here in Atlanta, more broadly in the Southeast, and even on a national scale (if that’s what you’re after). Think about what you’re trying to build and the tools you now have at your disposal. Sure, there’s pride in the Revelator brand that you’ve begun to build over the past couple years, despite its ups and downs; but there’s a lot more than pride in the brand that Octane has built. There’s a community of loyal fans (myself included).

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Beer Before Liquor

Beer Before Liquor

Bierschnaps & its’ root (hah!) beer, Feest Noel. Courtesy IDC/Three Taverns.

If you’re into whiskey, you may have heard the expression “distiller’s beer” which refers to the fermented mash of grains, yeast, and water that feeds the first distillation. Typically these are not beers that are meant to be consumed on their own, but a few craft distillers are now working with existing craft beers and using them as their distiller’s beer in special releases. There’s the Samuel Adams Boston Lager that becomes Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Two Lanterns whiskey, or Arcane Distilling’s Lone Wolf line of whiskey made from various micro-craft (and homebrew) beers, or Charbay’s R5 Whiskey which is distilled from Bear Republic Brewery’s Racer 5 IPA, or HUB Brewer’s Whisky made at New Deal Distillery from HUB Organic Lager. Even more crafty, J. Rieger & Co. in Kansas City is using slightly-past-its-prime beer from nearby Boulevard brewery as the starting point for their Left for Dead series.

Here in Atlanta, two recent craft beer-distillery collaborations have taken up the charge of beer before liquor, both to rather impressive results. There’s Decatur-based Independent Distilling Co., who used the Feest Noel beer from neighboring Three Taverns brewery to make their Outlier series Bierschnaps; and ASW Distillery, who partnered with Monday Night Brewing to develop a custom distiller’s beer and turn it into  Monday Night Scottish-Style Single Malt Whiskey.

Both of these collaborations are unique and, more importantly, quite tasty. If you’re into the esoteric and local and can manage to find a bottle, whether at the distilleries themselves or in limited local release around Atlanta, they reward the investment. And both are harbingers of good things to come as the craft beer and distilling scenes in Atlanta (and beyond) continue to grow side by side.

Here are the details and tasting notes on these two very special (and limited) beer-to-liquor success stories:

Independent Distilling Co., Outlier No. 3 Bierschnaps

Base Beer: Three Taverns 2014 Feest Noel (300 gallons) – made with 100% malted barley, Belgian dark candy sugar, cardamom, allspice, and clove.
Distillation: Alembic pot still (in February 2015)
Aging: 22 months in newly charred American oak barrels (two 15 gallon barrels)
Bottled at 90 proof

Notes: I first tasted this one out of the barrel about halfway through its aging process, and the prominent baking spice notes on the nose and palate had me thinking of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (one of my favorite sweet vermouths). The extra time in the barrel until release lent this Bierschnaps further depth and complexity – starting delicately with a floral yet spicy nose, then hitting the tongue hard with a slap of cinnamon and clove backed up with toasty burnt caramel notes. The aging in those small barrels (for more interaction with the wood) is evident in a dark and oaky finish. Simply fascinating stuff, especially if you can get a hold of a bottle of Feest Noel and compare the two. The spice notes here offer some fun opportunities for cocktail experimentation as well (Kimball House recently made a Sazerac variation with the Outlier No. 3 combined with aged rum).

The Outlier No. 3 Bierschnaps actually has a release party tonight (if you’re reading this on March 23) at the Argosy if you want to snag a taste of this very limited run!

Seeing double (and more) with the ASW-Monday Night collaboration

Monday Night Scottish-Style Single Malt Whiskey

Base Beer: Custom batch from Monday Night Brewing, made with a hefty dose of cherrywood-smoked malt barley (which is a component malt in their popular Drafty Kilt Scotch Ale) and two-row malt barley.
Distillation: Scottish-style twin copper pot stills (in August 2016)
Aging: Roughly 6 months in new charred American white oak quarter casks (13 gallons)
Bottled at 86 proof

Notes: How is this lovely whiskey merely six months old? The nose may not give much away, with light hints of marzipan playing coy, but you can tell there’s much more of interest underneath. If you sit with it long enough, the cherrywood smoke comes through in subtle wisps at the tail end of deep breaths in. Sipping, the “Scottish-style” character emerges, but this is no peaty beast – think of the more delicate end of Scotch and you’ll be in the right territory. The malted barley here provides a pleasant cereal warmth, balanced with a light wildflower honey sweetness, and the finish leaves a happy memory on your tongue for several minutes. ASW is turning out mighty impressive limited releases (like this and their Resurgens Rye) for such a young distillery. And you have to love a label with a badger in a bowtie.

Full Disclosure: The tasting bottle of Monday Night was provided by ASW Distillery.