Alpharetta has too many chain restaurants. It’s the curse of being in the ‘burbs. Don’t get me wrong, a chain restaurant serves its purpose if you need the standard food menu that’s modern and yet not so creative that the kids might not be able to order chicken fingers.
Slowly, very slowly, you are seeing a short list of non-chain, ‘chef-driven’ restaurants grow longer in Alpharetta. The newest entry onto the short list is “Branch and Barrel” located in the glamorous, other worldly Avalon, and the Chef at the helm is none other than a ‘burb boy himself – Chef Todd Hogan, a local from Cherokee County that has had various tenures around town, one of them being Branchwater at Vickery in Forsyth County. Armed with the understanding that even people in the suburbs like good, non-chain food, Chef Hogan is attempting an original, out of his back pocket, taste and quality driven restaurant.
I’ve heard good reports on the craft beer selection. The wine selection is adequate. But, I am a cocktail aficionado, so let’s delve deeper there. To begin, Chef Hogan might be the first (among the first) in Alpharetta to bring the “shrub” to his list of ingredients on the cocktail menu. The Shrub – that vinegar based taste infusion that does so much for your alcoholic drink! I ordered the Peach Perfect, a blend of Stoli Peach Vodka, peach shrub, pineapple and luxardo cherries. (May I just say, luxardo cherries are something special, particularly when soaked in spirits.) As for the drink itself, do not imagine this a thin, sweet, alcoholic version of punch, for it has the magic of the shrub. The peach shrub elevates this drink, or perhaps I should say brings it down to earth, thanks to the earthy nature of the vinegar. Very peachy, but almost spicy.
I also broke from tradition (my own, that is) and tried a bourbon based cocktail. In this case, it was a 1792 Bourbon, mixed with a grapefruit shrub, vermouth, lime and fresh ginger, collectively known as “Smartini Pants” at Branch and Barrel. My delight, my sheer delight at this drink could only be matched, I suppose, by the very first people on the streets of Atlanta who, over 100 years ago were offered a drink called “Coca Cola” by Asa Candler. Not that this was Coca-Cola based and yet there was something….
No one should have cocktails without plenty to eat. This is called “being able to drive home later”, i.e. drink responsibly. The Jalapeño Candied Bacon and Sweet Potato Fries with Maple Aioli was a fine nosh in between sips of cocktails; not burdensome or greasy. It was dotted with not quite enough of a delicious jalapeño candied bacon. And may I just say Thank You to Chef Hogan for not announcing all over the menu where he sourced his bacon, unlike so many who think that just because they knew the name of the pig and that it was raised by an organic farmer in north Georgia means that the final product will taste good. Simply bring us quality meats and make them taste good. But, I digress. We followed up the bacon with lobster (naturally!) by ordering not 1, but 2, servings of the Sherried Lobster and Sweet Corn Gratin with Pita Chips; definitely a dish that is more than the sum of it’s parts. The freshly baked pita was the perfect compliment.
Chef Hogan’s entrees hit a southern, comfortable theme: there is a Bourbon Pork Tenderloin, a Kentucky Common Beer Battered Fish, and the down-homeyness of a Pot Roasted Brisket. We tried the Barbecued Mini-Meatballs with Cheddar Potato Gratin, full of comfort flavors that seem to suggest a slightly Asian influence in the barbecue sauce. Branch and Barrel features a vegetarian entree option as well as a healthy and diverse list of entree salads. I had the Marinated Grilled Steak with Onion and Blue Cheese Tart, Grape Tomatoes and Sherry Herb Vinaigrette. It was served with a steak that was grilled to perfection at medium doneness and together with the Sherry Herb Vinaigrette gained my nod of approval. My only recommendation, and everyone else at my table was in agreement, would be to serve the Onion and Blue Cheese Tart warm. A raw cold onion is fine. A cooked onion (in a tart) pleases best when warm.
There were some negatives of the evening, most of which centered around service being slow, and a waitress being inattentive, but then again, Branch and Barrel had been open just shy of a full two weeks at the time of my visit. A guest at our table received her Roasted Butternut Squash with Grilled Chicken, Goat Cheese, Pumpkin Seeds, Cranberries and Cider Vinaigrette salad entree, without the squash, the pumpkin seeds or the vinaigrette. Oops. But all was forgiven when the Chef came out to apologize and the entree price was subtracted from the final bill.
Branch and Barrel is not flamboyantly eclectic, and yet it is certainly not straight off the the Sysco truck, sparing us the typical chain restaurant dumbing down of our tastebuds. According to the “Experience Avalon” website, Hogan is aiming for “bread baked daily, in-house cured meats, unique cheese , local ingredients” and yet these things don’t scream self-righteously from the menu. Perhaps Chef Hogan is making an educated guess that even patrons way out in the burbs in Alpharetta will actually taste quality ingredients and techniques and will come back for more.