The fact that Kevin Gillespie was one of my favorite cheftestants from Season 6 of BravoTV’s Top Chef reality show factored little in my decision to visit Woodfire Grill.*
In fact, I hadn’t intended on eating at Woodfire Grill at all on my recent stop in Atlanta.
When Gillespie passed through Kansas City earlier this year, I had asked him where I should eat in Atlanta. He gave me a list of local restaurants, both near and far. I was much more interested in where he ate than where he cooked.
But then, Blissful Glutton told me that Gillespie’s vegetable tasting could be inspiring. And that got my attention.** So I went.
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Despite all that, I didn’t order the 5-course “Vegetable Tasting” ($65). I ordered the 7-course “Grand Tasting” ($85) and asked my server if the kitchen could substitute a couple of the courses on the grand tasting with highlights from the vegetable tasting. I was pleased with the meal they assembled. In fact, I was so impressed by the first few courses that I added three more dishes to my tasting mid-meal, ordering them from the regular menu.
To see all the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE. To see each plate individually, click on the course titles below.
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Whipped goat’s milk feta, citrus zest, Banyuls vinegar.
Wild Salmon Tartare
Capers, toast, and diced celery.
Local Okra Salad
Roasted fennel, aggressively roasted okra, baby arugula, fennel dressing.
Wood-Grilled Pork Belly
Crispy pickled radish, greens, and kimchee.
Sweet Herb Risotto
Local cheddar frica, roasted cauliflower, turnip, and beet greens.
Fried Local Okra
Hot sauce bacon aioli, Kansas City-style coleslaw, tomato pickle. ($8)
Wood Oven-Roasted Sweetbreads
Muscadine syrup, smoked apple and parsnip hash, roasted chicken jus. ($14)
Smoked Pork Tenderloin
Chile oil, roasted cauliflower, sweet corn grits.
Wood Oven-Roasted Leg of Lamb
Baby beets, lacinato kale,
Chinese long beans wrapped in house-cured ham, natural lamb jus.
Gabriel Coulet Roquefort
Local honey, mission figs. ($9)
Whipped peach, yogurt panna cotta, candied lemon zest.
Peach Streusel Cake
Almond mascarpone, peach puree, peach swirl ice cream.
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The food at Woodfire Grill isn’t fancy, and it’s certainly not fussy. Like the beautiful spoonful of Wild Salmon Tartare that arrived first, every dish that followed it was simple and tidy, leaving little room for error or distraction. Thankfully, the ingredient quality was incredibly high, and the cooking was dependable.
Despite having been initially portrayed the tattooed butcher and spotlighted for his meat cookery on Top Chef, in later episodes, Gillespie proved to be just as good, if not better with vegetables. But how much of that highly edited television “reality” was true?
Well, judging by the dishes I saw, there was no deficit of talent standing behind the meat dishes, which included a beautiful cube of pork belly with a crisp, crackling crust, and a juicy pork tenderloin that sat smoking above the restaurant’s woodfire grill, brought down and sliced to order during service.
But by comparison, I found the B side of Gillespie’s repertoire much more compelling. His vegetable and side items were the highlights of my meal.
Local okra had been “aggressively roasted” with strips of fennel, rendering them both tender, yet meaty. Shocked with highly acidic vinaigrette, the caramelized fennel seemed especially sweet. Altogether, this warm salad was a dynamic and unexpected marriage of flavors and textures. It was my favorite dish of the night.
Okra came again to my table, puffy and perfect, wearing a light tempura shell. They were wonderful. I probably wasn’t supposed to eat them with my fingers, but I did anyway. How else was I supposed to dip them in the bacon aioli? (That aioli was great, even if it was a hair salty.)
The risotto was excellent, studded with tiny kernels of cauliflower. The rice was just as tender and firm as it needed to be, enrobed in creamy starch threaded with chopped greens and herbs. No cheese had been mounted into the risotto, and, judging by the taste, no butter either (or very little), leaving the cauliflower and greens to carry the flavor confidently. A crispy little cheddar snowflake seasoned it all. This dish demonstrated Gillespie’s mastery over technique and subtlety.
A delicious bed of apple and parsnip hash, enriched with a schmaltzy chicken jus laced with cayenne, arrived beneath an unusually large block of sweetbread. The roasted sweetbread was very good, but the hash was much better.
Baby beets, slightly blistered in the open wood oven, came alongside tender slices of lamb and Chinese long beans wrapped in ham, a Southern couple by way of Canton. The lamb was excellent – tender and musky. But I fancied the beets more.
And that pink pork tenderloin I described above, hammy and smoky, came with charred cauliflower crumbles scattered over an unforgettably delicious stretch of grits. A magnificent example of “sweet heat,” the unusually sweet corn grits were spiked with chili, offering a wonderful contrast to the salty meat. Like sweet corn bread and ham, this was was immensely comforting, immensely Southern.
The dishes I had from the pastry department were a half-step below those that proceeded them.
The cheese – a creamy cube of Gabriel Coulet Roquefort – was fine, as were the glazed figs that tagged along. But the caramelized honey that ringed the plate had cooked too far (i.e. had achieved the hard-cracked stage) and crystalized before my very eyes, though not before I swiped a taste with my fork. Pity, it would have been excellent with the cheese.
The Peach Streusel Cake was a touch dry. But the whipped mascarpone, full of almond flavor, and the peach swirl ice cream, which was a bit watery, helped even things out.
Although all of the staff members orbiting the host stand were incredibly welcoming, my server was a bit stiff at first. He warmed up over the course of my meal and turned out to be incredibly helpful, championing me in the kitchen during long delays (I didn’t help matters by ad libbing three dishes on an incredibly busy night) to get me out on time to catch my flight.
In case you’re wondering, my chance meeting with Gillespie in Kansas City didn’t make us friends. I’m quite certain that I was just another stranger in his dining room. For most of the meal, I wasn’t sure if he was in the restaurant. He appeared briefly in the open, wood-fire kitchen that’s visible to the dining room, having come out of what I assume was another kitchen in the back where the non-grilled/roasted foods and pastries must have been prepared.
When I arrived, the dining room was empty. Halfway through my meal, the house was full. By the time I left, most of the tables had been turned.
For its solid cooking, wonderful ingredients, and comforting appeal, Woodfire Grill deserves to be a popular restaurant. If you don’t mind the smoke (you’ll smell it as soon as you pull up outside the restaurant, and you’ll smell like it after your meal), I recommend it.
To read more about the dishes from this meal, consult the annotations.
1782 Cheshire Bridge Road
Atlanta, Georgia 30324
* I can’t believe I typed that sentence.
** A chef that can do wonderful things with vegetables is much more likely to impress me than a chef who can do wonderful things with meat. Alain Passard of l’Arpege, David Kinch of Manresa, and Jeremy Fox, formerly of ubuntu, for example, are vegetable alchemist.