Gone with the wings in Atlanta
Atlanta is throwing down the kind of day that would break even Scarlett O’Hara’s hard heart. Clouds hover over the world’s busiest airport; wind shoves the rain sideways. I could spend my 10-hour layover staying dry within the terminal but I have a date with a haute Southern kitchen.
A train whisks me from the airport to the Midtown neighbourhood in less than half an hour. Margaret Mitchell House & Museum, where the author penned her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gone With the Wind in Apartment 1, is a minute’s stroll from the station. After turning onto Peachtree Street, I pause near the intersection with 13th Street, the spot where an off-duty taxi driver struck Mitchell in 1949. She died five days later at the age of 48. I am that same age; I look once, twice, thrice before crossing every street to reach South City Kitchen Midtown.
Despite the weather, the 150-seat joint is jumping. South City Kitchen occupies a 1920s double-storey bungalow dwarfed by skyscrapers. Its homely roofline is visible from across the street but up close a thoroughly modern patio dominates the facade. Inside, the vibe is smart yet casual. Tables are covered in white cloths; waiters wear checked shirts with jeans. Seated in front of the white-tiled fireplace, I study the menu’s contemporary Southern fare. I could start with bourbon-cured salmon or the she-crab soup but this place is famous for its fried green tomatoes.
Executive chef Chip Ulbrich’s crumbed tomato discs stuffed with goat’s cheese recline on a bed of red pepper coulis ringed with basil-infused oil. The tomatoes taste as good as they look. My appreciative noises are drowned out as bartenders jiggle cocktails over ice and locals laugh at each other’s stories. My choice of cocktail arrives; it’s a Smoky Seelbach mixed from Old Overholt rye, orange liqueur, sparkling wine and bitters, poured over a rinse of Laphroaig’s heavily peated whisky. It’s a concoction I’d never order in Australia but in Atlanta its brunch-time boldness seems just right.
Between courses, warm cornbread and a buttermilk biscuit (or scone, to us) arrives, with spiced apple sauce and whipped butter on the side. I nibble, trying to leave room for what’s coming. I’ve forsaken Ulbrich’s spin on shrimp and grits — a dish from the low country of South Carolina and coastal Georgia. His recipe uses Red Mule Grits — organic corn ground in a mill improbably powered by a red mule called Luke who lives near Athens, Georgia. Ulbrich jacks up the flavour with tasso ham (a Cajun-style, spice-rubbed ham from Louisiana), poblano peppers and smoked tomato gravy.
Instead, I have my heart set on fried chicken and waffles. When they lob, Ulbrich breezes past in his trademark fedora. “Do you want hot sauce with that? It’s really good,” he says. And so I experiment with forkfuls of chicken and waffle, doused respectively with hot sauce and Vermont maple syrup. The bites are in turn crunchy and fluffy, sweet and packed with heat, and should not be this delicious. I think I’m hooked.
Ulbrich soaks his airline chicken breast (a cut that includes a wing bone) in a buttermilk brine for two days before dipping the pieces into fresh buttermilk, flouring, seasoning and frying. Malted flour goes into the waffles. Atlanta also features another place famous for chicken and waffles — Gladys Knight and Ron Winan’s Chicken and Waffles further south on Peachtree (and at two other locations). Chef Ulbrich wanted to distinguish his dish from the competition. I could ask what’s different besides the cut but frankly, my dear, I’m too busy chowing down to give a damn. • midtown.southcitykitchen.com
Meaty Southern fare, above right, served at the South City Kitchen Midtown, far right