It takes a special chef to handle tofu and duck with equal aplomb. Just as mushy faux-chicken nuggets at a vegan joint can disappoint a tag-along carnivore, the vegan entrées at many a fine New American restaurant often turn out to be bland. But not those by Gwynnett St.’s Justin Hilbert. Since the restaurant’s opening last fall, Hilbert has served a tofu-like substance made of ground pecans and another made of almonds. In late August, the menu’s vegan offerings were swapped for rich, nutty pan-seared pistachio squares ($21). This deeply delicious and texturally toothsome food has little in common with supermarket tofu, aside from the fact that it’s meat-free. Translucent shavings of summer squash add airiness to the dish, and bits of sautéed celtuce—a Chinese vegetable with lettuce-like leaves and celery-like stalks—add a summery, vegetal flavor. Throughout dinner, I kept glancing at the restaurant’s front door—with each bite, I was convinced that the place might be stormed at any moment by a flash mob of hungry vegans.
Hilbert’s more traditional duck is a perfectly executed transition to fall—lean pink meat, rich faro, crunchy toasted pecans and tender chanterelles get a late-summer sugar-spike from fresh chopped nectarines ($28). The artistic, asymmetrical platings seem slightly at odds with the restaurant’s beloved whiskey bread ($5 per loaf), but we’re not complaining. Homey and rib-sticking, with a sweet hint of bourbon-y fermented tang, this biscuit bread is proof that this adventurous restaurant has a really big heart.
By the close of the meal, we trusted the chef enough to order the server-recommended raspberry-beet dessert ($9), but that’s when things got weird. There, in the small central crater of an oversized plate, lay a few perfect, jewel-like raspberries tossed with tiny, pink, beet-flavored meringue kisses, teeny ginger-minty shiso leaves, and little frozen pellets of raspberry-shiso mousse. On a savory plate, beets can add delicate sweetness, but here the super-sweet raspberries brought out the earthiness of the beets. In wine-tasting terms, “earthy” refers to notes of rich soil, damp leaves, and minerals, but what’s great in a Sangiovese can be strange in a dessert. The cold mousse pellets—shaped like something you might feed a small dog—were certainly odd, and the floral flavor of the shiso imparted subtly soapy notes. Call me old-fashioned, but I would’ve preferred a dessert that echoed the hominess of the whiskey bread. Speaking of that whiskey bread, there were two slices left at the end of the meal, and I wanted desperately to stash them in my purse. If you find yourself in this position, learn from my mistake and grab one of those thick disposable hand towels from the bathroom before they clear your table.