Sir Toby: “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” – Twelfth Night Act 2, Scene 3, 114-115
C&A has been on my “to-do” list for quite a while now, and I finally had the chance to get try it out last week. Located at on W. Ponce De Leon in downtown Decatur, Chef Billy Allin has built a reputation around town for a dynamic menu that highlights sustainable and locally sourced modern American fare. (Side note: Kudos to Allin and Co. for not slinging around the term “Farm-To-Table”…though they may not fit the technical definition of the term, many restaurants who practice less local sourcing than they do seem to have no problem hopping on the F2T bandwagon.) Their menu changes almost daily and they have built quite a following of local regulars. If the “Dec” was my part of town, I know I’d come by whenever I got the chance.
The decision to head over to Cakes & Ale came somewhat last minute, so when I called at 4:30 to get a reservation for that same night (the night before Xmas eve) I was told that 9 PM would be my first shot at getting a table. They did say that I could come down early and possibly get a spot at the bar or get seated ahead of schedule, so we went over around 8 PM. I won’t be making that mistake again.
The space is warm and inviting, but definitely small. By the time we arrived there was a waiting list just to get a spot at the bar and all of the tables were packed. There isn’t any seating other than the bar and there really isn’t much room to stand around. So, even though we got a few drinks while we waited, we constantly felt like we were in the way of the servers and incoming guests. I don’t really fault the restaurant for this because we knowingly showed up an hour before our reservation, but I would have rather been given realistic expectations of what the waiting experience was going to be like. But, we did manage to eventually worm our way onto a couple of bar stools for the last 15 minutes or so of our wait.
Because we (kind of) knew what we were getting ourselves into by showing up an hour early, and because we were actually seated at the time of our reservation (to the minute actually), I didn’t really have a BAD experience with the service. But, my hour of awkwardly standing around did give me time to observe the front of house for a while, and I think that the combination of popularity and a small space proves to be overwhelming to the staff on a busy night.
We were instructed by the hostess to place our drink orders with her instead of at the bar, as the sole bartender seemed to be overloaded at the time. I had no problem with that, in theory. But the hostess was running around like a chicken with her head cut off, both trying to wait on us and manage the constant influx of patrons, and she was failing at both tasks miserably. This was really the only part of the night that pissed me off.
Look…I get it. Your bartender is overwhelmed and you are trying to pitch in to help her manage the workload. But if you want to volunteer yourself as my waitress, don’t make me stand there waiting for my first drink for 15 minutes while you bounce around the room and ESPECIALLY don’t give me a condescending eat-shit-and-die look when your bartender spots me and calls me over to ask for my drink order. She had a free moment and wanted to do her job. So don’t come over and scold me for not “listening to you the first time.”
There were a few positive notes about our wait. I hadn’t expected the house cocktail list to be as good as it was. I’m surprised that Cakes & Ale doesn’t get more attention for their impressive drinks menu, like an H&F or Leon’s does. It felt like the type of cocktails I would see at a self-proclaimed “gastropub”. (Again: Kudos for not hopping on another bandwagon guys. Seriously.) I even got to sip on a glass of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Bourbon. Those that follow this blog have probably figured out that I do love me some bourbon, so I was ecstatic to start my night with that.
Over the course of our wait and during our meal, we sampled the Whicker Bar (Rye whiskey, St. Germain, dry vermouth, Pernod, bitters, and orange bitters), the Dappled Apple (Applejack brandy, apple juice, allspice dram, and balsamic vinegar), and the Pineapple Habanero Gimlet (vodka, lime juice, pineapple juice, habenero, and powdered sugar). All 3 cocktails were impressive, but the gimlet and the Dappled Apple were fantastic. At the time, neither was actually on the menu, but the server told us that they were favorites with regulars and suggested we try them. Good call, sir.
The other upside to the wait was that it gave us the chance to drool over the giant chalkboard menu and to try the first of our apps for the evening, the Arancini.
The Arancini are little balls of risotto with citrus acid wrapped around a chunk of Pecorino reggiono, deep fried, and then dusted with fennel. These were delightful. In fact, they were so good that we ordered a second round when we got to our table. The fried exterior carries a lot of flavor, though it wasn’t greasy, and the fennel and citrus acid gives each mouthful just the appropriate amount of bite. I would recommend getting these, especially if you go with a group.
Because I can’t resist trying a dish that I have never eaten before, I couldn’t stop myself from ordering the Beef Tongue appetizer as well. Having never had beef tongue, I fully expected to get a mouthful of shoe leather, albeit flavor-packed shoe leather. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The slow braised beef tongue was served with a sunchoke remoulade and topped with a homemade salsa verde. The first thing that I noticed was how tender the beef tongue was. It wasn’t “melt in your mouth” tender, but my teeth met with very little resistance with each bite.
When the “perfect bite” is assembled, the combination of the tongue, salsa verde, and sunchoke remoulade pair wonderfully. This was way more satisfying that I expected.
For our entrées, my date went for the Gnocchi and Braised Guinea Hen.
While the flavor on this dish was good, and the Guinea Hen was well seasoned and prepared, I was a little less than thrilled with the gnocchi. The gnocchi had been pan fried after boiling, which gave it the appearance of having a nice browned crust. Unfortunately, the texture was too mushy. I believe it was overcooked when it was boiled, and was probably left out just a little too long before it made it to the table. That extra bit of steaming would explain why all of the crunch was gone. But, overcooked gnocchi aside, the rest of the flavors were fresh, savory, and satisfying. I would probably order this dish again and cross my fingers that the texture was just a misstep.
I ordered the Red Wine and Tomato Braised Wild Striped Bass with carrots, olives, turnips, and a sunchoke and potato puree.
This was a nice, warming, comfort-food type dish. It didn’t blow me away, but there were no disappointments either. The fish was cooked perfectly, though I didn’t get much extra noticeable flavor from the red wine and tomato braising. Because everything was piled together, it was hard to differentiate the flavors that I tasted. Though, the end result was still enjoyable. I would order it again if nothing else tickled my fancy, and would be happy with it, but I’d probably rather mix it up next time instead.
Unfortunately, the multiple orders of Arancini plus everything else we consumed that evening left us both far too stuffed to consider delving into their enticing dessert menu. I have heard nothing but wonderful things about Pastry Chef Cynthia Wong’s offerings.
I really enjoyed the meal here and I definitely plan to return, though I will make a point to arrive much closer to my actual reservation time. I love the fact that the menu changes so frequently and I’m looking forward to seeing what Allin and Wong cook up next.
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