Curious foodstuffs have graced the formica tables of Atlanta's Gato Bizco diner this year. They're the kind of dishes you might not expect to see in a kitschy short-order neighborhood diner where the menu specialties include biscuits, sweet potato pancakes and huevos rancheros.
Equally unexpected was the rotating cast of internationally-renowned chefs who turned Gato Bizco into the best restaurant in Atlanta, two nights at a time, as they hosted the pop-up BATON Supper Series.
The hometown team - Emily Hall, Lena Klein, Nicholas Stinson, Allen Suh and Adam Waller - had assisted in previous meals so they knew what they were in for. They had a formidable selection from which to derive ideas, with meals by Tien Ho of Momofuku fame, former Le Bernardin pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, Ivan Orkin of Tokyo's Ivan Ramen, Ana Ros of Slovenian restaurant Hisa Franko, Milk Bar's Christina Tosi and a collaboration between New York chefs Carlo Mirarchi of Roberta's and Brooks Headley of Del Posto.
The series kicked off last October with "Black Pepper Appreciation" from the team behind M. Wells, the short-lived Quebecois-American diner in New York. Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis served up ramekins of beef tongue pie topped with puff pastry, foie gras bread pudding, beef heart tartare and fried liver and onions with sunchokes in vermouth, and more.
A few months later, Danny Bowien stopped in and created a Sichuan-inspired "Mission Chinese Atlanta" menu: tea-smoked eel with pulled pork trotter and Chinese celery and savory egg custard as a prelude to Sichuan-style catfish topped with peanuts boiled in pickling brine, red-hot chicken wings, pork belly cooked three ways and griddle cakes made of rice and topped with tofu skins and mustard greens - just to name a few.
"I like Atlanta a lot. It's slower-paced then New York and it's nice to be able to get back to a food culture that's still growing and there's still that excitement over what's to come," Bowien said in August in his second visit to Atlanta for a BATON supper. The first time, he was the headlining act. This time, he was supporting Christina Tosi and staff from Milk Bar, which created a brunch-inspired supper that began with cinnamon bun pie and layered pancake cake and ended with their famous crack pie and compost cookies.
All told, the cozy 20-seat diner has played host to an impressive talent roster, giving diners and chefs a chance to step outside their culinary comfort zone in the latest spin on the underground supper club. Guests experience a taste of a chef outside their geographic boundaries while chefs get to experiment in another kitchen. For some of them, it was a rare chance to get back on the line for a day and take a break from running a kitchen or prepping behind the scenes.
It's a twist that's working in several supper-club style venues across the country. Chef Sarah Simmons runs City Grit in a former SoHo elementary school-turned antique shop that guests walk through to reach the dining room's communal tables. Simmons collaborates with guest chefs (BATON veteran Tien Ho has been one of them) and cooks up her own meals on a semi-weekly basis, deriving inspiration from a variety of sources. For example, authors Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs of the upcoming Food 52 cookbook and award-winning Food52.com will be on-site when Simmons prepares a five-course meal featuring her favorite picks from their new book.
Chefs in this kind of "culinary salon" (as Simmons calls it) adapt their style to the setting, and diners are willing to wait however long it takes.
Indeed, on some nights guests at BATON could end up waiting an hour past their scheduled reservation for others to clear out, especially on the last night as devotees hung around to talk to the chefs and soak up the last bit of atmosphere. The series quickly earned a devoted following among food lovers who made a point of trying to attend every meal. Among them, it was quicker to say which meals they'd missed rather the ones they'd attended.
And, because of the limited seating, parties were often seated side-by-side, placing lawyers and soccer moms in the same booths as hipsters and off-duty waiters while food bloggers bellied up the counter to snap pictures of the chefs in action.
"We come because we love the food and we love to be surprised," said Atlantan Karen Luscher as she picked at the last bits of her aubergine duck fat tartine on Tuesday - a riff on another eggplant dessert from the collaboration between Headly and Mirachi.
"It's unpredictable and spontaneous in a way that's not typical for Atlanta," she said. "They don't get into the foodie labels, they create small plates that are unlike anything you've ever tried and they're amazing."
Luscher lives in Candler Park, just a few blocks from Gato Bizco, and has attended all but the first meal with her friend and neighbor, Wendi Aspes.
"I look forward to it every month, to being surprised," Aspes said. "You never know what they'll come up with or what to expect."
Like the time Bowien surprised guests with a second appearance in August to contribute a dish of grits and uni, steak and eggs, sides of mac and cheese and griddle cakes to accompany the Milk Bar gang's bakery-inspired meal. That same night, the pitfalls of the limited-run model also became apparent, when several no-shows left the restaurant half empty for stretches of the evening.
Even so, visiting chefs also relished the opportunity to step outside their culinary comfort zones in what many regarded as a working vacation. For many of them, the setting and the format were complete departures from their daily routines.
"It's a nice way to get out of town and cook something different," said Momofuku Milk Bar's Christina Tosi, who took a break from the Brooklyn bakery where she and her team whip up confetti cookies and candy bar pies to try their hand at dinner for a change. Or, at least, a bakery's take on dinner, which included baked good and Reuben-filled croissants before a main course of honey-baked ham, black pepper butter mashed potatoes and Bowien's steak and eggs.
In a nod to one of her favorite dishes growing up Virginia, Tosi served lima beans soaked in homemade ranch dressing to complement the honey-baked ham.
"We wanted to do something that felt right in this space," Tosi said in August as she sat in one of the booths shelling beans with her colleague. To deal with space constraints, they prepared some of the ingredients in New York and shipped them down for final assembly with other ingredients prepared the day of the meal.
"It's a dream come true for anyone who works in a kitchen to experiment with friends in a new place," she said.
Much of BATON's success lies in the dedication of Archuleta, drummer for the indie band Deerhunter, and Tedford and the relationships they forged while living in New York's East Village.
The couple started the series in September 2011 after returning to Atlanta, often playing host to the visiting chefs and showing them around Atlanta's dining scene when they weren't crashing on preparations for the two-night affair. The couple returned to New York a few months ago, which made organizing dinners in Atlanta challenging - part of the reason for stopping the series in its current form.
"We've been doing it for a year now and we know what works and doesn't work," Tedford said. "It's probably a good time to take a break and rethink things."