Happily ensconced in the back side of the Westside Urban Market, flanked by the Bacchanalia / Star Provisions empire and the Taquería del Sol fortress, is JCT Kichen and Bar. Self-described as a classic Southern style bistro, and there being entirely too many mediocre places in Atlanta with the same label, I rued the day when I’d have to return to yet another haute Southern cuisine wannabe restaurant. Making homemade biscuits and fried chicken and plating it on square china does not make the restaurant a paragon of fine dining. Yes, you can say that I’m jaded with the segment. But since Abattoir closed for lunch and I needed to get out of Vinings, I decided to give JCT a try.
I should also mention that JCT had run out of available tables on Open Table from 12:00 until 12:45. Since Abattoir, practically next door, never had luck with their lunch service, I was pleasantly surprised and took this as a good sign. The space is beautifully decorated and I immediately recognized two Abattoir touches: the kitchen towel napkins and the center waiter’s table designed for easy access to napkins, silverware and water. This left only two options: either JCT and Abattoir share the same designer, or Abattoir shamelessly ripped off the ideas. Inquiring minds want to know.
The lunch menu is, as expected, a reduced version of the dinner menu with added sandwiches. The appetizers seemed decent enough, though plagued by a couple of clichés: the truffled pommes frites and onion rings. Interestingly enough, they also had deviled eggs and pimento-cheese toast. With my curiosity getting the better of me, and taking into consideration my Pavlovian aversion to deviled eggs, I ordered the pimento-cheese toast.
I have to say that it was very good, if imperfectly portioned. Cheddar, pimentos, chives, house-pickled sunchokes and plenty of arugula made for a delicious flavor profile; but the toast was too big, requiring too much pimento-cheese spread on top and ultimately overwhelming. It was too rich. Scaled down a tad, with smaller pieces of toast and less spread, this would be a great starter.
On both the server’s and a co-worker’s recommendation, I decided to try the fried chicken. This is also another horribly clichéd dish in the “New South Cuisine” genre and had potential as fodder for a long diatribe on this blog. My dining partner, on the server’s suggestion, tried the “Grown-Up Grilled Cheese” with a tomato soup. I’m glad to report that the food was refreshingly good, with a few caveats.
The fried chicken was very nicely executed and took a risk that was reassuring to see: there was no chicken breast to be found on the plate. Every other restaurant that specializes in this kind of cuisine would have caved in to peer pressure, compromised and featured a chicken breast, with the thigh as an afterthought. True fried chicken connoisseurs will generally agree that the thigh is the superior piece of chicken. Fatty, juicy, and begging for a hot oil jacuzzi. I’m also a huge fan of the entire chicken wing, so I was elated that the dish featured a thigh and a gargantuan chicken wing that, if not for the promise of local, organic product, would have induced hormone-injected chicken nightmares. The dish was finished with garlicky green beans and a generous bowl of mac-and-cheese. The mac-and-cheese was nicely done and garnished with chives. Sadly, the traditional brûlée of cheese and bread crumbs on the top was conspicuously missing and deprived the overall dish of additional texture.
The Grown-Up Grilled Cheese was described as “Assortment of cheeses, roasted tomato on buttered semolina toast.” Grilled cheese sandwiches are hard to elevate to fine dining standards, but this rendition was solid and I would recommend it without reserve. The tomato soup, however, was a tad watery. I would agree that tomato soup is one of those soups that is hard to nail. There is a fine line between soup and sauce, and it would have been tragic to see what amounted to marinara sauce masquerading as soup. This wasn’t the case at JCT, but, whereas tomato soup should be soupy yet infused with unmistakable tomatoey flavor, it was a bit muted. I felt that it lacked potency of tomato flavor and made me wonder how someone like Thomas Keller would have dealt with the conundrum of maintaining a soupy body while maxing out the essence of tomato flavor.
I have to say that the service was excellent. Our server was affable and attentive without being overbearing: she correctly anticipated need. My nitpicking aside, the food was very good and JCT is a great place to have lunch. I’m very curious to see how it performs during dinner time, and we’re arranging a chef’s tasting soon. I think that the challenge of a new South cuisine restaurant is to carefully straddle the line between perfectly-executed comfort food and true fine dining. True fine dining requires a certain level of creativity and advancement of the form. Whether JCT can do this during dinner service is yet to be seen. For this reason I reserve my knife rating until we try the dinner meal. The kitchen has already proved a high level of standard when it comes to technique. Now it remains to be seen whether they can transcend.