March 19, 2012
Death by Bacon
Edgy national chefs go off the culinary map (sometimes way off) for Baton Supper Club at Candler Park’s Gato Bizco
By Nancy Staab
What do you get when you combine a hole-in-the-wall diner, a rock star Deerhunter band member as host, the country’s hottest emerging chefs cooking extemporaneously for a late night sitting, occasional live music, and shoulder-to-shoulder dining with local food journos, bloggers, foodies (wearing “Who’s Your Butcher?” t-shirts) and local pop-up restaurant owners? The super secret (until recently), underground supper club Baton.
It was a pork-palooza when hotshot, San Francisco guest chef Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese Food commandeered the teeny-tiny kitchen at Atlanta’s coolest new underground food scene Baton Supper Club (baton-limited.com). [Apologies for my poor photos: this tiny, underground club prohibited professional photographer.]
A little background: 29-year-old Bowien is a native Korean adopted by Oklahoma parents, who took up Chinese cooking only recently. Both Bon Appetit and GQ magazine named Mission Chinese one of its Best New Restaurants in America 2011 AND he just racked up a Star Chef finalist nomination for 2012 from James Beard Foundation. He’s made a national name for himself cooking up his Asian-inflected (lots of spicy Sichuan eats), pork-centric, Momofuku-esque dishes in a pop-up restaurant created within a no-frills, non-descript, pre-existing Chinese joint, Lung Shan, in San Francisco. Given that set up, Bowien probably barely raised an eyebrow when confronted with the tiny, low-grade, single galley kitchen and bare-bones diner space that Baton offers. There’s barely room to flip a skillet though there is a charming altar of cat tchotchkes (a nod to the breakfast diner which is known as Gato Bizco by day).
Bowien’s hallmark dishes at Mission Chinese include a riff on the Japanese egg custard chawan mushi with duck confit, sea urchin, green tea and country ham broth ; thrice-cooked bacon; numbing lamb face Biang Biang Mien noodles; Westlake rice porridge with oxtail, dungness crab, soft-poached egg, cilantro; and a playful little dish called Kung Pao Pastrami. Oh and he hand-stretches those biang mien noodles.
The menu for the Baton supper was equally playful and studded with Bowein classics. Most of the dishes had a Southern-meets Asian twist—whether the shelled peanuts in the Sichuan catfish; the collard green-esque wild pepper leaves with pot liquor; the Tennessee bacon used for the Thrice-cooked pork; or the substitution of Savannah shrimp for the crab and oxtail typically used in his custard.
This was not precious, fussy cooking, nor was the plating particularly pretty but it was fascinating sitting counter side with kitchen view—three-feet from the grill, watching Danny knock out one spicy, robust, brawny (often pork-laden)dish after another, interspersed here and there with something tremblingly delicate, silken and subtle like the egg custard with crunchy roe on top. It was the long-haired, tattoo-armed Danny who actually passed us many of the dishes across the counter between swills from a bottled import beer and manning woks and grills to the beat of rap music. Thrice cooked bacon was almost overkill but the graduation of spice/heat levels was well orchestrated throughout the courses and the dishes exotically inventive in some cases.
Founder and host Moses Archuleta (who daylights as a drummer/keyboardist for indie, Atlanta rock band Deerhunter) along with co-founder Bryson Tedford, deliberately declined an interview with the press to further the mystique, so Baton remains a somewhat mysterious production. One of their first dinners took place in the fall 2011 with chef Tien Ho from David Chang’s famed Má Peche. Just how in the heck Archuleta and Tedford bribe, cajole and convince these nationally-hyped emerging chefs to come to Atlanta (so far none of the guest chefs have even hailed from the South) to cook in a doll-size open kitchen for about 50 food junkies is beyond me. Surely they’ve been offered more plush, powerhouse chef gigs. Perhaps they are charmed by the prospects of touring vintage Atlanta eats spots like The Varsity and Mary Mac’s—you know the grits and sweet tea tour-- (both of these spots were sampled by Bowein while in town—but he gets food props for also checking out Peter Chang’s and Tasty China). More likely they were charmed by Moses’ own enthusiasm for the venture and the uniqueness of his concept. As Bowein himself states, “Moses really had a vision. We became friends and talked on the phone. He’s a cool guy and I like to do things that are different.”
And while many a budding chef and restauranteur has latched on to the supper club trend, Moses is the first to regularly import chefs from far away for his culinary exchange program.
Mission Chinese Food was recently named one of the country’s three hottest destination restaurants by The New York Times restaurant critic Mark Bittman in a May 25, 2011 article. And oh yeah, one of the other three he listed was M. Wells (the much raved about, late Quebec-American-inspired diner in New York), whose chef Hugue Dufour also guest-chefed recently at Baton. On that menu: Blue Pointe oysters with coffee sabayon; beef tongue pot pie with puff pastry top; foie gras bread pudding; Georgia/Quebec stew with oxtail, country ham and fresh corn; and pudding chomeur (translation “poor man’s pudding”) with maple syrup cream. Is it only a matter of time before Torrisi Italian Specialities (NY), Bittman’s third mention, also cooks their retro remakes in Gato’s makeshift kitchen?
Up Next: Baton's April Supper Club will host chef Michael Laikonis whose worked at the ultimate 5-star seafood palace, chef Eric Ripert's Le Bernadin, NYC. We are guessing there will be some seafood on the menu! The meal is $85 prix fixe and cash only. Email firstname.lastname@example.org quickly for your spot on the list as spaces sell out quickly!
Baton Supper Club typically takes place the last Monday and Tuesday night of each month. How to get in: go to Baton’s website baton-limited.com, sign up via email at email@example.com and cross your fingers. Suppers sell out quickly. Typically there are 2-3 sittings, early to late, for about 32 people with about 4 small booth and 8 counter seats. Dinners often come as prix fixe or a la carte with drinks extra and must be paid in cash only. Gato Bizco is located at 1660 McLendon Ave. For more on Mission Chinese Food: visit www.missionchinesefood.com
For more info visit: Baton-limited.com
Official Menu for Mission Chinese at Baton Supper Club:
Savory egg custard with chicken, apple, foie gras, citron
Tea smoked eel, pulled pork trotter, chinese celery, country-fried chicken skin
Catfish a la Sichuan, boiled peanuts, pickling brine, crispy chicken wings
Mongolian long beans, hot peppers, smoked oyster, horseradish [this dish was dropped from late night service]
Thrice-cooked pork, Benton’s Tennessee bacon, Sichuan peppercorn
Wild pepper leaves, pumpkin, salted chili, pot liquor
Griddled Shanghai rice cakes, tofu skins, pickled mustard greens
Westlake rice porridge, Savannah shrimp, brisket, fresh coriander, egg
Lacquered Mu Shu pork belly over carrots, celery and cabbage
Chicken confit and smoked eel fried rice with a distinct seafood/oyster flavor