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August 15, 2011

Inside PushStart Kitchen

Atlanta’s latest secret supper club explores Southern-meets-Latin culinary crossroads at the artsy enclave the Goat Farm.

<p>A tomato confit, avocado, basil salad with Serrano ham, smoked chile cornbread and a molasses vinaigrette.</p>

A tomato confit, avocado, basil salad with Serrano ham, smoked chile cornbread and a molasses vinaigrette.

By Liza Dunning

  • Photos by Caroline Petters

Who needs fancy table cloths and fine china, or a state-of-the-art kitchen for that matter, when you’ve got good wine, rustic lanterns, railroad tracks, a random tractor painting, a convivial crowd, and a young chef with finesse cooking up creative, South American-infused dishes?

“So. How’d you hear about this?”

It was the same question repeated over again as each couple joined our pre-cocktail and canapés conversation. There were ten dinner guests in total, most of us strangers—a mix of architects, analysts, teachers and techies, with a few creative-kinds sprinkled in. But every one of us could be characterized as “foodies” at heart—discussing Atlanta’s current dining trends, the names of chefs instead of their restaurants, and the latest up-and-coming culinary concepts.

In food, we were certainly kindred spirits. Which would explain how we’d all ended up here together in a back corner unit of the Goat Farm—a destination most of the guests had never heard of until they arrived—intending to eat a four-course meal prepared by a chef none of us really knew much about…

Yet, every one of us had signed up within seconds of receiving the email invitation because, well, we’d “read about it/heard about it/found it on the internet… somewhere.” Or something like that.

It’s exactly how all great dinner parties should start.

As Zach Meloy, 33, creator and chef of PushStart Kitchen, hurries around his tiny studio-turned-dining room, he excuses himself, “Usually I have my wife here to help with all of this, so I’m kind of all over the place right now.” He’s preparing garnishes, spreading red pepper jelly on bite-sized corn masa cakes, lighting lanterns hanging from a wood plank suspended above the table.

The space—no bigger than the average college dorm room—is one that he and his wife Cristina Meloy, 29, rented as a test-restaurant of sorts; a way to dip a first toe into the Atlanta restaurant scene. On most nights, Zach works as a line cook at 4th and Swift while Christina holds “a real person 9-to-5.” But it is here, on Friday and Saturday nights, that they host what will hopefully replace theirday jobs: a restaurant of their very own. They envision a small restaurant with an open kitchen with a ledge that serves as a bar and maybe eight to ten tables. Zach says the restaurant would be located in an in-town neighborhood location, with a focus on a “living” menu that changes along with the market. Small, yes, but modern and approachable--perhaps with a bit of a rock-n-roll edge. “NYC’s Momofuku Noodle is an example of the vibe I want to go for,” Zach explains, “Fine dining is changing. It’s not about how much money you can drop. I want progressive food presented in artful ways, in a casual atmosphere, at a comfortable price.”

For now, this underground dinner party serving ten guests a night, two nights a week, on a first come/first serve basis via email RSVP, is quite the handful. The space at the Goat Farm is all they need to impress twenty hungry Atlantans each week. “They do a whole lot with very little,” says Anthony Harper, one of the owners and familiar faces around theGoat Farm. “It’s pretty amazing what they’re doing with that space.”

What’s amazing about PushStart Kitchen isn’t really the dimensions or the décor; it’s everything else happening in and around it. Yes, the room is cozy and friendly, like you’re eating a celebratory meal amongst close friends of all kinds. But perhaps the best attribute is outside the room, accessible through the giant industrial doors.

As the sun starts to set and guests begin to arrive, Zach asks, “Are we ready for this?” and pushes through to a raw patio space any Rathbun-wannabe restaurant would dream of. We sip our pre-meal Dark & Stormys and snack on the corn masa canapés while, just an ice cube toss away, an Amtrak train rolls by. With the setting sun peeking through the Goat Farm’s giant kudzu-covered brick archways, “cozy and friendly” seem less accurate of a description; it’s effortlessly epic—in a way that no “traditional” restaurant could ever claim.

As for the food? Cristina is Costa Rican, and Zach was born and raised here in the South. Marietta, to be exact. “In my family, everything revolved around food,” Meloy recounts, mentioning that really, all of his life’s memories are based around the meals he’s consumed. It’s his point of reference. So it’s no surprise that, after college, he took to culinary school at Johnson & Wales, then to opening his own restaurant in Costa Rica where he and his now-wife (and PushStart partner) worked together. “It was traveling in Central and South America that I started noticing the overlaps in Latin American and Southern cuisines. What I’d always known as distinctly Southern ingredients and recipes weren’t all that distinct to me anymore. The two cuisines naturally fit together, so I wanted to focus on the overlaps while keeping a lot of the unique traditions and concepts.” A cultural crossroads of cooking, if you will.

Corn masa cake canapes  with cream cheese and red pepper jelly Corn masa cake canapes with cream cheese and red pepper jelly


And so, the couple continues developing menus around this theme, but always evolving--every night a new progression of ideas generated around dishes from weeks before. On this particular night, the culinary crossroads fork like this: pre-meal canapés of those miniature corn masa cakes topped with a dollop of cream cheese, covered in a slightly spicy red pepper jelly and paired with lemony, summery Dark and Stormy cocktails. When we sat down to the table, our first course started with a Rioja rosé and a summer-perfect salad of tomato confit, avocado, basil, smoked chile cornbread, a sprinkling of savory Serrano ham, all married together with a molasses vinaigrette.



And the main event: an oh-so-tender Sous-vide pork tenderloin, dressed up in a roasted plum mole sauce (It’s Latin!) paired with crispy grit cakes and country ham powder (No, it’s Southern!) that epitomizes the Meloy’s marriage of the two cuisines.


Finally, dessert: a rum-scented pan perdido – lovely, light and spongey bread pudding, or as one guest described it, “Like French Toast!” paired with dreamy condensed milk ice cream, pickled cherries and galleta maria—the traditional Mexican cookie. At last, a bowl of handmade Costa Rican candy is passed around—soft, bite-sized, coconut-y creations served to the children where Cristina is from—a perfect ending to a lovely meal. And all of it, every course of it, met with the same oohs, mmmms, and delighted, surprised whoahhhs as the dish that came before it.

“This is why we do this.” Zach says as he finishes off a final round of Rioja into ten barely empty glasses. “It’s that instant gratification of hearing people enjoy the sensual experience of your food. That’s why we cook. And you tend to miss that experience when you’re working behind kitchen doors.”

Sign up for PushStart Kitchen’s mailing list to receive their weekly menus and RSVP for your spot at the table:

Or follow them on Twitter: @PushStartCook

rum-scented pan perdido rum-scented pan perdido