It has been five days since I dined at Better Half, and I can still taste almost every flavor in each dish I sampled. In the last workweek, I've daydreamed about my next visit and told every person I know about this flavor haven on the Westside, despite the fact that it might become such a hit that I won't be able to snag a table. They deserve the hype, and I feel lucky enough to share a zip code with Better Half.
We sat at the bar, which looks like your typical cocktail bar, but instead of muddlers, wine glasses and a bartender, Zach Meloy and Jonathan Miller helm a stove top, ovens and prep station. The pair works seamlessly around each other, cracking jokes and swooping in to correct each other’s oversight, adding a garnish or dabbing china. Zach and Jonathan are also skilled multi-taskers, taking time to banter with guests, explain dishes and sneak samples. The wait staff is just as anticipatory, which, combined with impeccably designed and cooked food, made the evening seamless and memorable.
For our first course, we went with the soft egg over perlas with chicken confit, fennel jam and fried chicken vinaigrette. As the chefs put it, it's an ironic dish, as the chicken and the egg are for once served together. The soft egg is perfectly poached, soft and solid on the outside with a runny, bright center. The perlas were cooked al dente and the fennel jam combined with the chicken confit for a salty and sweetly caramelized flavor that was only made more complex by the fried chicken vinaigrette. I only wish I had taken a picture, because the dish looks as good as it sounds, just like the rest of the menu.
During the next course, we ordered the silk handkerchief pasta and roasted flounder. Rumor has it, Zach cooked Cristina, the general manager and his now wife, the handkerchief pasta on their first date. After one taste, you can see exactly why she married him. Layers of handmade pasta, cooked to silky perfection, are filled with a wild mushroom confit with porcini cream and topped with a tomato marmalade that tastes of summer even on a January night. Topped with fresh, snappy basil, the dish is complete perfection, and it's the only one that has a permanent home on the menu.
The roasted flounder is seared and baked through, and it tastes fresh, a difficult compliment when Atlanta is four hours from the ocean. It's served in a shallow pond of scallop chowder, which the chefs say is a combination of everything they could find in the kitchen. The scallops are small without being chewy, tasting like melting pearls. The chowder is smoky, rich and complex, and there's just enough of it to dip the flounder, scallops and crustacean chicharrón for varied flavors without drowning out the standout freshness. The chicharrón is chewy and an interesting take on the Latin American snack. Zach and Cristina spent time in Costa Rica, and their experiences show up in interesting places on the menu.
After a long debate between desserts, we finally decided on the caramel corn semifreddo with burned meringue and smoked cajeta. Here comes the best part about sitting at the kitchen bar, the chefs "accidentally" made us an extra dessert, serving up a Mexican hot chocolate tres leches cake we never would have ordered, as most restaurant's don't do the Mexican dessert justice. These chefs, though, don't work in most restaurants. The cake was the perfect texture, spongy and springy without falling apart and served with crunchy cocoa crumb and bourbon milk to provide contrast of texture and taste. It was bitter, sweet, soft, crispy, which is the best compliment for a dish, in my mind. The semifreddo was just as flavorful, and the one Zach made for us was gorgeous enough for him to even want to snap a picture on his smart phone. He works the torch like a preteen boy, discovering handheld fire for the first time, and he says he writes recipes for the restaurant based around the tool itself. The caramel corn flavor was so striking; it made me wonder just how they got it into semi-frozen form.
In the end, Zach and Jonathan spoke to us like friends and made us feel welcome anytime. We shared stories and shots of hibiscus moonshine, a syrup-looking shooter that tasted strong and sweet. Our bill came packed in a tin, the same tins Costa Rican men bring their lunch to work in in, as Zach says, with a pair of freshly made truffles that were chewy and the perfect mignardises for a perfect meal.
Did I mention the place was BYOB when we went? Still waiting on their license, I hope they stay that way. In any case, they'll only serve beer and wine, and I am positive it will be as thoughtfully chosen as the ingredients and techniques on the menu.
Both Jonathan and Zach believe in a homegrown, down-to-earth restaurant experience. That can be hard to find in Atlanta, where only the Buckhead elite seem to find reservations in the most overhyped places. Better Half is a place you can go for any occasion with anyone. Better Half is like coming home, if home was a place with masterful, creative and conversational chefs. Better Half showcases what’s best.