Atlanta. Memorial Day weekend. The sweltering morning heat gave way to a typical warm summer evening (in May). A soft breeze was blowing as Tropical Storm Beryl was readying herself to come onshore. The city quieter than usual due to sun worshippers fleeing for the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf. Beryl and her reluctant companion, the beach, had set the tone for our evening meal at The Optimist. The babysitter arriving, sun dress calling out from the closet with the perfect pair of wedges, clutch filled with lip gloss and face powder to blot dewy skin, it was time to depart for summer seafoody goodness. A coastal dining experience in the heart of the Westside.
Having grown up on the coast, I am always reluctant to eat seafood as far inland as Atlanta. It has had to travel a great distance, must be kept on ice until it is cooked (whenever that may be) and many times is farmed rather than caught in its natural waters. These factors leave the flavors of the fish lacking. To cook fish inland well, you have to go to great lengths to do so and know how to prepare it properly without losing the flavor or destroying its delicate texture. From everything I was hearing from friends and fellow food bloggers, The Optimist had conquered this complex challenge spectacularly. I was ready to indulge and transport myself back to my coastal homeland for the evening.
White washed brick, wrought iron and a cheery yellow awning displaying the fare greeted us as we walked through the oyster bar to the hostess stand. The space is open, fresh and clean with white washed planked ceilings and brick walls carried over from the outside. The bar, the bow of this ship with its tasteful, nautically-inspired bar stools and vintage signage light bulbs above, overlooks the entire dining room, captained by a familiar face for Westside foodies and lovers of cheese dip, Michael Cook (formerly of Bone Garden Cantina). A great catch by Ford Fry. We sipped on our Fish House sauvignon blanc while chatting with Michael and thoroughly entertaining the gentleman next us with our witty banter. The bar was full of diners feasting on oysters and kindred spirits waiting for their tables. The energy high, the staff beaming with pride, we knew we were in for a very good night.
After only a short wait, we were seated. Our waiter began his explanation of the restaurant, Chef Fry’s philosophy behind the recipes and the various dishes on the menu. The Optimist uses only sustainable seafood, species not over fished, from large fisheries or farmed. The deal is made directly with local fishermen ensuring the fish is carefully selected and shipped fresh to be cooked within the week. From Florida grouper, to Alaskan halibut, to Georgia trout, the menu offers a diverse selection to suit any fish lover’s palate. And for the wee ones, a Kid’s Menu full of perennial favorites all for $7, because let’s face it, seafood is an acquired taste, especially for children. We decided to start with the Whole Georgia Shrimp a la Plancha. A spicy introduction to the restaurant.
Glancing around the room, there were families with young children seated in the booths, couples on their Saturday night dates and groups of friends enjoying a meal before a night on the town. The open kitchen was a flurry of activity with sous chefs and assistants working the stoves and the grills while Chef Fry personally dressed each plate for service out front. The beautiful, full-bodied shrimp finally arrived along with hot towels for cleaning messy hands. Grilled to perfection, the arbol chile and lime sauce is a wonderful complement to the light shrimp flavor without overpowering it. I was in love with the fact that the heads were left on the shrimp (eyes and all); the head is the best part! I sopped up the shrimp in sauce, licking my fingers thinking my southern Mama would not approve…but Mama, it’s so good. Devouring the shrimp and wiping my saucy fingers on the hot towels, it was time for the main course!
I had wavered back and forth between the scallops and the skate wing schnitzel. Similar in texture and taste to scallops, I decided on the skate as it is a rare find on any menu. I was most excited to try this schnitzel style! My husband ordered the duck fat poached swordfish and our side, beignet corn milk hushpuppies dusted in cane sugar. The skate portion was large and in charge but I was up to the challenge. Lightly breaded and sitting in a shallow brown butter caper sauce, I dug in. Having never eaten skate before, I was delighted to find the texture fluffy and the taste, while similar to scallops, a bit more flavorful. For anyone looking to dive into seafood for the first time, I recommend this dish as your christening. The schnitzel breading coupled with the brown butter and capers is packed full of mouthwatering yumminess and I feel is definitely a signature dish for The Optimist. Not only is it a rare fish to find on a menu, but Chef Fry’s spin on this winged aquatic “bird” is well thought out and beautifully executed. The swordfish, poached in duck fat, was tender, paired with pickled sweet peppers and crispy pancetta which really brought out the flavor of this mild fish. And of course, what can be said about the beignet styled hushpuppies other than, holy yum! From first bite to last crumb, the entire meal was, simply put, delicious. We were so full from dinner that there was just no room for buttermilk donuts with sweet corn ice cream (which I had been coveting all evening at other tables). Next time; and there will be many next times.
The full menu is served at the dining room bar while an abbreviated menu is served at the oyster bar next door. The oyster bar opens at 5pm during the week and 3pm on the weekends with closing time stated as “whenever”. A great place for a late night snack and a cool libation.
The menu offers non-seafood fare as well for those not fond of the fish.
Plenty of seating, with large table rounds for parties of 6-8 and booth seating for parties of 8-10.
Complimentary valet and plenty of street parking available.
914 HOWELL MILL RD ATLANTA 30318