“This might be the best roast chicken ever,” enthused normally somewhat skeptical dining companion — without an exclamation point, but genuinely nonetheless. I had to agree. A crackling skin enrobed succulent flesh, hints of smoke tantalized a second sense, and delicate threads of honey brought the whole dish together. Looking voluptuous, but somewhat alone on the plate, the only thing lacking might have been a few pommes rissoles (parboiled and sautéed potatoes) if we’re being fancy, a dab of mashed potato or parsnip if we’re not.
So, hiding in plain sight on the restaurant’s menu from the beginning (I usually order chicken only as a last resort), Periphery’s smoke roasted bird with lemon/honey jus vaults handily to the top of local charts. But in this casual, neighborhood space, some of whose former tenants have been Old Main Association, Beat Street and Justin’s Ice Cream, chef Mark Weaver (himself formerly of Tre Trattoria and The Lodge) appears less concerned about chart-topping than exploring a personal path that toggles between Italy and Savannah with “a little smoke thrown in for good measure.” His polenta-crusted pimento cheese with bacon jam might just sum it all up.
I have to admit, somewhat sheepishly here, that I think of polenta as the final, cooked product, not as the coarse corn meal it springs from — so I was surprised when the duo of fried patties arrived coated in the crunchy stuff. I’m not totally convinced. Maybe if the grind were finer, the cheese a little spunkier. But the bacon jam is irresistible, and folks must like the dish as it, too, has been on the menu from its early days. Ditto the inventive crispy lentils with chopped avocado and celery, sunflower seeds, lemon and sumac.
If there were a prize for textural thrills, this plate would win it hands down; the tastes are a little less exuberant (I could use more of the sour sumac powder) but it’s a keeper. So, too, is the cast iron buttermilk cornbread. Salads and soups show a little more seasonality on the starter list. There have been fewer nods in that direction among the mains.
I’m looking at four, different menus as I write this — a couple from the beginning, another that was recently on line, and the current iteration. Among them, the only substantial difference among the mains is the 86ing of a butternut squash “puttanesca.” I’ve had them all but for the barbecue catfish (beautifully rendered as it may be here, it’s not a fish I yearn to order), freely admit that the chicken liver “bolognese” is a worthy variation on a time-tested theme , and that the world is better off with Periphery’s take on risotto featuring heirloom beans. The vegan/vegetarian world thanks him, too. Pretty much everyone will also appreciate the aggressively charred (to just the right point) fennel with capers and chopped olives from the “extras” column, a category that does see occasional revision.
But — and I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t think there was a lot waiting in the wings we haven’t seen yet from this chef — let’s move on from the likes of grilled hanger steak with broccoli salsa verde and aji amarillo mayo. Yes, the steak is good; the “salsa verde” is zingy and thrilling in its own right; and the aji-accented aioli could hold its own in any situation. But do we want them all together and, as everything ends up cold, at the temperatures served? Is this an enduring classic in the making? Maybe not.
To go with all this, there’s a concise wine list, big on reds and with a fair number of by-the-glass selections as it should be, that’s not exciting but gets the job done properly. Cocktails are also not big on inventiveness (the shadow of Old Main still lingers here), but the bar does a commendable job on the challengingly bracing kaffir lime gimlet and the mellow vieux carré with rye, cognac, vermouth and Benedictine — all reasonably priced at no more than $9.50.
And to end it all, one dessert: grilled peanut butter pound cake. The modestly peanut-y and handsomely grill-marked cake and its accompanying salted caramel sauce have remained constant from the start; other components (ours were whipped cream and strawberries in simple syrup) may change from time to time. It’s all good — but good is rarely good enough for long. So I’m eagerly awaiting Act II, a move that, playing against the name, might bring the restaurant from the periphery into the spotlight it likely deserves.
Don’t change the chicken, though.
*The article has been updated with chef Mark Weaver's correct name.