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A wood-roasted North Carolina scamp grouper with blue crab and veggies.

A Phoenix Rising

by Wendell Brock | Photo: Caroline Petters | The Atlantan magazine | May 20, 2013

Let the word go out. Let the angels sing. In the year 2013, in the fair city of Atlanta, a new culinary superstar is born. His name is Tyler Williams, and as the new executive chef of Woodfire Grill, the restaurant made famous by the beloved Kevin Gillespie, Williams propels himself to the stratosphere of haute cuisine.

A student of Bacchanalia’s exacting Anne Quatrano, first as her sous chef and most recently as executive chef of Abattoir, Williams has clearly learned from the best. Though his cooking at the meatcentric Abattoir showed a skillful hand, at Woodfire, he truly finds his métier.

Last time we checked, Woodfire was a sophisticated seasonal restaurant reflecting the Southern-flavored musings of Gillespie and, briefly, E.J. Hodgkinson, who left early this year for Jct. Kitchen & Bar. Though Woodfire hasn’t altered its core philosophy of offering a locally sourced daily menu, Williams proffers an elegant and refined vision that circles the globe. Sure, you can still find regional ingredients like Vidalia onions and Georgia peanuts, but I didn’t see a single mention of Gillespie’s signature pork belly. What I did notice, taste and love were Williams’ fantastic references to Hawaii, Korea, Italy and India. Turns out, he has a degree in cultural geography and fell in love with Lebanese food as a kid growing up in Michigan.

Settling into a booth on a recent evening, it was evident that Woodfire has not wavered one iota in its attention to every delicious detail. For this consistency, I credit owners Nicolas Quinones and Bernard Moussa. Bar Manager Brian Stanger remains a force in the city’s handcrafted cocktail scene. We had some fun with our “bartender’s choice”—in which you choose white or brown booze and let the bar do the rest. I requested bourbon, adding that I liked the sound of the housemade kumquat soda. The result was a sensational riff on the classic Horse’s Neck, with lots of ginger and citrus notes (big yes to the kumquat). My accomplice wanted something light and gin-based; I suggested lemongrass, and she got an elixir of gin, aquavit, lemongrass, lime and nutmeg that she quite adored.

Williams’ fireworks started delicately, with an elegant spring-pea soup of baby carrot, mint, young coconut and a cardamom marshmallow. We nearly licked the bowls. The Korean beef tartare was a thoughtful mashup of pine nuts, Asian pear, unagi and other exciting flavors that reminded me of the heyday of Soto Japanese Restaurant, where another very talented chef once whipped up heavenly appetizers. We liked the Hawaiian-style poke (raw fish salad) at aloha. For this dish, the chef himself appeared, Richard Blais-like, with a smoking pitcher of liquid nitrogen mixed with sesame powder, which he poured around the melange of hamachi, seaweed, quail egg, flying fish roe, salmon roe, avocado puree, soy and ginger.

The feast continued with a delicious Indian-inspired kheema, made from White Oak Pastures lamb, green garbanzos, English peas, shawarma and sprouts. Somewhere along the way, the chef sent out his clever Tongue and Cheek specialty off the tasting menu. Biting into the milk-braised beef cheek and corned beef tongue—dancing with flavors of pureed blackberries and beets, pickled and charred spring onions, and violets—I had one of those revelatory, all-too-rare OMG moments.

When it came to the entrees, it almost felt as if Williams hadn’t quite had time to apply his global genius, yet his love of fresh produce and protein never lacked depth or flavor. Wood-roasted North Carolina scamp grouper, set off with blue crab, asparagus, yukons, herbs, spring-onion hollandaise and wild ramps, was buttery perfection. Berkshire pork loin was grilled to a smoky intensity and put together with an appreciation for classic Southern ingredients: black-eyed peas, peanuts and bacon.

While Pastry Chef Chrysta Poulos has moved on to the next Ford Fry venture, King + Duke, Karie Brown is finding her way with inventive ideas about berries, bread puddings and buttercream. We liked her carrot cake with candied ginger ice cream, blueberry cream cheese and Rice Crispy. Jasper Hill Farm’s intense Winnimere cheese was spread on the plate with elements of blueberry, huckleberry jam and peppery biscotti. It washed down wonderfully with a cool sweet Kiralyudvar Tokaji Cuvée Patrícia from Hungary, selected by Quinones.

We were in heaven, and we’ll be back. For, wherever Williams wants to go, we want to be there, too.

Woodfire Grill
1782 Cheshire Bridge Road

Tue.-Thu.: 5:30-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat.: 5:30-11pm

The Price Is Right
First, second and third course format: $8 to $18; $10 to $12 and $33 to $52, but the menu changes daily, so the prices may vary slightly. The tasting menu ($70 for five courses, $90 for seven) may be the way to go. And let them pick the wine—they are really good at it.

Serious, but not stuffy. Dress for comfort, or dress to the nines—either way is fine.

Design Mind
It’s a converted house on Cheshire Bridge. The front rooms are deceptively plain and rambling; the main dining room is polished and tight.

Park It
The complimentary valet takes care of you out front.

Bottom Line
Under new Executive Chef Tyler Williams, Woodfire is on its way to challenging the end-all, be-all Bacchanalia.