JCT Kitchen and Bar
1198 Howell Mill Road, Suite 18, Atlanta GA 30318 (Map); 404-355-2252; jctkitchen.com
Cooking Method: Wood-grilled
Short Order: One of the city's best restaurants does almost everything right—except a truly great burger
Want Fries with That? You'll love most of them, but probably leave several stragglers behind
Price: Hamburger, $9; lamb burger, $16
When owner/executive chef Ford Fry visited his newly-obtained commercial space, he spotted a sign with three letters on it: JCT, designating a "junction" of train tracks within the once-booming railway hub of Atlanta's Westside. It became the name of Fry's new restaurant, which subsequently became one of the city's culinary darlings. But JCT Kitchen and Bar sits at another kind of intersection, smack in the middle of a who's who of Atlanta's burgermeisters: 500 feet from Yeah! Burger, half a mile from both Miller Union and Bocado, and not quite a full mile from FLIP Burger Boutique. That's a tough neighborhood in which to have your burger truly stand out. I'm not sure JCT's does.
The exceptional space is at once industrial-chic cool and warmly inviting. Lots of wood, lots of metal, lots of sunlight. A swanky upstairs bar overlooks a sweet skyline view. There's a giant dispenser of Lemonhead candies and a rack of magazines and newspapers, homey touches that elicit a smile and encourage you to just hang out for a spell. The food is Southern, to be sure (fried chicken, shrimp and grits, etc.), but usually with a cheffy twist, the menu liberally sprinkled with words like "arugula," "brioche," and "truffle." A visit to JCT is a treat for the senses, but one of my favorite things is the smoky aroma wafting from the wood-fired grill.
A grilling fanatic, I'll readily admit that the big pile of logs scored immediate brownie points in my mind, even before I sat down. I've never worked in a commercial kitchen, but I know from my own backyard Weber adventures that grilling over wood is just plain hard, and it shows a clear love for method, process, and craft that many places just can't/won't be bothered with.
JCT's lunch menu features three wood-grilled burgs. Their hamburger, the most basic option, comes with your choice of white cheddar or bleu cheese. It's attractive enough, sitting atop a red onion, tomato, and lettuce bed, tucked cozily into a soft bun from local powerhouse H&F Bread Co. (whose owners, incidentally, know a thing or two about burgers, too).
The beef (my server called it eight ounces but seemed only half-sure) was juicy and had a noticeably smoky tinge to it, but there was nothing that jumped out as awe-inspiring. It's a solid burger, and at nine bucks, a steal at such a high-end place (cheaper than most of the salads!), but when you're at what few would deny is one of the city's best restaurants, you expect to be blown away by whatever you order.
Which is perhaps why I got a little caught up in the occasion's fancypantsitude and ordered JCT's lamb burger.
Available only at lunch, the lamb patty boasted pronounced grate marks indicative of some intensely high heat on the grill. The patty is topped with fried Sweet Grass Dairy goat cheese (from four hours south in Thomasville, Georgia) and pepper jelly and crowned with the same spectacular H&F bun. As cover-shot burgers go, this one didn't have blatant sex appeal; there's a lot to be said for a gratuitously oozing, melting blanket of cheese. But knowing full well that the whole point of a lamb burger is to be an entirely different animal (pun absolutely intended), I went along for the ride.
This was my first time with lamb in burger form (forgive me, Kenji!), so I relied on the kitchen's recommendation when it came to doneness. They said "medium," but good heavens, that's a whole color palette away from Nick's cross-section shot of The Breslin's lamb burger. My heart sank a little. The meat was juicy and not overly funky (as many lamb critics espouse), but it also wasn't bold or memorable in any sense. The pepper jelly provided the only real zing to this $16 burg, and I found myself eyeballing my wife's beef-and-white-cheddar model with increasing menu envy. I didn't dislike my lamb burger, but I didn't fall in love, either.
JCT's shoestring fries, available plain or Parmesan (the app section shows "Truffle-Parmesan Fries;" it's unclear whether they're truffled up as a burger side), are a paradox. While the good ones in the pile were addictive, there were just as many stragglers that were overfried and too crunchy.
I guess that's a fair analogy for my lunch experience at JCT Kitchen and Bar. What's good there is outstanding, and there's plenty of that. But what's not outstanding makes you think you got blinded by the glitz and glamour of this bona fide jewel in Atlanta's fine dining crown. I went to prom, just with the wrong date. Had fun, but wish I'd made out with the shrimp and oyster po' boy or Maine lobster roll instead.
About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.