The Branded Butcher
Restaurant in Athens, GA
Farm-to-Table Southern Restaurant
The Branded Butcher is an unassuming little shop front on Lumpkin Avenue in the college town of Athens, Georgia. Though not quite two years old, the restaurant has already established itself as the principal recommendation in the southeast's #1 food town.
As a farm-to-table restaurant of consummate credibility – no "locally grown" lip service here – the Branded Butcher's menu changes every week. But diners who trust themselves to house manager Will Atkinson, are assured of tasting the best that Chef Matthew Parlmerlee can offer.
He started me off with a pimento goat cheese, creamy and pink-flecked. Accompanied by toast points baked to a well-advised chewy counterpoint, the cheese would have benefitted from salt or more pimento, if only to hold its own against the spiky influence of Willett Rye, an unusually pale and buttery bourbon from one of the South's last family distilleries.
The dish that followed was a much better match for the liquor: tempura-fried squares of an herby chicken terrine that melted after a momentary crisp resistance. They were, Will informed me, a play on McDonald's chicken nuggets. (He added that most people don't need to be told that. I apologized for not recognizing it – fast food was verboten in my childhood, I said).
The Branded Butcher is hardly alone in offering a highbrow spin on a lowbrow standby. But Southern comfort food is uniquely suited to this culinary wink-nudge. As in fashion, music and domestic crafts, the rest of the country is only just now catching on to what the South has been perfecting for the last fifty years...as in the simple, subtle impact of the Branded Butcher's Scotch Egg, an unfussy paragon of the iconic backwoods dish, served on a guilty-pleasure pile of celeriac remoulade. The egg inside was cooked to improbable perfection – seriously, I don't know how you get a white to set that stiffly, while bringing the yolk to the just-jellied consistency of a Cadbury cream egg, and then maintain it all frying the outer shell to a beignet-like crunch. Where others might use spices to coax the umame from the sausage, this Scotch egg used a subtle whisky gastrique to play up the meat's sweetness.
Next came a salad topped with duck prosciutto shaved as thin as the baby lettuce leaves beneath it, combined with pickled blueberries and croutons, dusted with cured egg yolk and pale mauve flowers from the redbud tree, which hinted a green apple flavor over the salty stringency of the duck.
By this time, I was drinking a biodynamic Cinsault-Syrah-Grenache, tartly substantial enough to wake me from the blissful sleep threatened by each mouthful of the pork belly confit.
Will explained the dish as the Branded Butcher's take on bacon-and-eggs – in fact, it was a square of unctuous protein bound together by a charred skin, laid across a bed of whipped egg yolk, surrounded by shards of grana padano and spiked with a tiny tuft of black watercress, ladled with a sabayon just thick enough to suggest gravy.
In lingering conclusion, Will brought out a lemon chess pie accompanied by sweet tea ice cream and jalapeño jelly, and a Cambozola cheese with syrupy Vidalia onion jam. By this stage, I would have been loosening my tie if I'd had one, and so it seemed would the other diners. Their tongues were loosening like those of congregants' at the end of Sunday service; those filing out shook Will's hand with a profuse gratitude that matched my feelings exactly.
This is the unique virtue of southern cuisine – the ability to imbue any meal, no matter how high-flown, with a down-home conviviality. And though it might have brought the quality of my upbringing into question, I shamelessly licked my lips for the meal's final traces, before staggering out into the dogwood-scented night.
Chelsea Batten is an itinerant journalist and photographer
Photographs courtesy of The Branded Butcher
|Reviewer's Rating||★ ★ ★ ★ ★|
|Clientele||College faculty and students (with their parents), well-heeled locals|
|Restaurant good for||Couples, Romance, Bar scene, Small groups, Meeting up with friends|
|Cost per head||Medium|
|Dining Options||Lunch, Dinner|
Unassuming, slightly bland décor; friendly, impeccable staff; convivial atmosphere.
Starters from $10 and Mains from $25. Wine from $30 a bottle.
Last updated on 19-02-2015