Newest addition to the Fry food empire has locals and national food writers buzzing
Growing up in the northeast has meant access to some of the finest seafood from Maine to Maryland. It’s also made me somewhat of an expert in the field of crustaceans. Summers in Boston spent at Neptune Oyster and Island Creek Oyster Bar, Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough in Noank, CT, and countless nights at some of New York City’s culinary masterpieces including Pearl Oyster Bar, Mary’s Fish Camp and Red Hook Lobster Pound. So it seemed living in Atlanta meant sacrificing the food I’ve come to know and love most in my world… until now – Meet The Optimist.
On most days in any of his three successful Atlanta restaurants, you’ll find Chef Ford Fry donning his Boston Red Sox hat, managing the kitchen with an air of calm and focus. His appreciation of Red Sox nation undoubtedly comes from his time spent at the New England Culinary Institute, but his cooking suggests a blended influence of his culinary training with his Houston upbringing. For a transplant city like Atlanta, that stark contrast comes in handy, especially at Fry’s newest venture, The Optimist.
Fry chose Adam Evans from within his own ranks as the executive chef for The Optimist. Evans is most notably from Craftbar, first having worked at Tom Colicchio’s Manhattan locale, and then transferred to the Atlanta location prior to its demise (a tough loss for the Atlanta food scene).
Named after a sailing dingy, The Optimist resides in an old warehouse in the popular Westside with a vaulted ceiling and open kitchen. Flanked by a smaller oyster bar, the dining room features a mixture of tables, huge banquets and a designer bar donning liquor bottles highlighted by a backlit wall.
While there’s much to choose from, there are a few standouts. Start with the accessibility to a carefully curated list of east and west coast oysters – something seriously lacking at most Atlanta restaurants offering oysters today. While the frothy she-crab soup is a silky take on the classic, the shrimp toast dipped in the flavorful broth will make your eyes light up. But the unsung hero is the smoked white fish chowder, which easily rivals some of the best “New England Clam” you’ve had. The bread rolls provided are the perfect way to sop up the bottom of the bowl.
Moving on to the category of rolls, Lobster and Clams are the focus of these buttered topside buns. I first experienced chef Ford Fry’s succulent lobster roll at Tasting Table’s Lobster Roll Rumble where he tested his version against some of the toughest competition in the northeast. This is also a shameless plug to request all future servings are accompanied by the lobster broth/butter infused legs as seen below.
I’m a big fan of leaving things in their natural form. For example Shrimp & Grits is a southern staple, which needs no improvement, just like the lobster roll needs no more than hot butter or a hint of mayo/celery/lemon juice. Since I’ve had a few fried clam sandwiches in my day (can you say The Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station?), most know nothing more than a fresh tartar sauce and a little slaw is necessary. I would love to see the restaurant offer this sandwich in its purest form as they do the lobster roll and let the flavors speak for themselves versus over complicating it with the addition of kimchi vinegar and house pickles, which sadly ruins a good thing.
From the main dishes, the Maine sea scallops or the duck fat poached swordfish are savory choices, and aren’t overcomplicated by the pickled or pepper options that have found their way into some of the other dishes. The fish & chips is also a classic staple that gives you your money’s worth of haddock and shoestring fries, making for a nice leftover lunch. A side of the assorted mushrooms with shallot confit is a nice addition to the table, featuring hen of the woods mushrooms.
Overall, The Optimist is a standout option for the Atlanta dining scene, which has been getting its due praise including Esquire Magazine and Eater.com naming it the “Best New Restaurant in America” and a finalist for “Restaurant of the year”, respectively. John Kessler noted this win recently on AJC.com, quoting Esquire food writer John Mariani as saying:
A soaring, convivial spot, the Optimist has a hip oyster bar shaped like a surfboard, a first-rate cocktail program, and seafood cooked with old-school expertise over a wood fire. Though everyone knew chef Ford Fry’s new place would be a big deal, the Optimist is far more than a resounding local success; it is an overnight totem of all that is wonderful about American food today.
For his next adventure, chef Ford Fry has his sights set on the former Nava spot with King + Duke. According to an interview with Eater.com last month:
People keep asking me what the cuisine or the concept is. It’s more about the technique, though. It’s a 24-foot wood-burning hearth, an actual fireplace, where we’ve got tons of coal and burning wood moving around. It’s primitive but exacting food. We may have ducks spinning or hanging from the hearth, and beneath it we’ll have potatoes or other ingredients catching the juices of the proteins roasting above. They’re going to be simple flavors, but you won’t be able to find that kind of taste at other restaurants.
You can read more about King + Duke and Fry’s interview with Eater.com here.
Have you been to The Optimist? What did you think of the menu and the experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!