The black bean puree was more of a black bean doodad. It looked like an oversized Hershey’s Kiss, and when you poked it with a fork, it lifted off the plate whole. It tasted soft and inoffensive, like a black starchmallow. For some diners this might be the deal breaker, the item that pushes the dish from the “like” to the “don’t like” tally.
That happens at Better Half, an ambitious restaurant that divides the dining public. A variety of highly processed components make up each plate. There will be textures and flavors — sweet, sticky, stringy — that you’re not expecting and don’t typically enjoy. If you look for that cheeseburger moment of pure richness and comfort in a meal, then you may not come out a fan here.
Me, I’m a fan. Chef-owner Zach Meloy is doing his own thing, cooking with refinement and asking you to take the cooking on his terms. He is a factory of ideas, changing the menu constantly, so other than one mushroom pasta that is the sole constant, you may never try the same dish twice.
For instance, that black bean kiss arrived in a flat bowl with grilled boneless rabbit leg, guajillo chile sauce, a thick carrot butter, finely crumbled chorizo and whole roasted carrots draped over the top. The deeper you get into this dish, the more the gentle flavors start to zing and careen off one another.
Here’s what you can’t do here: be one of those food-loving folk who passes plates around and samples a forkful of this and a bitelet of that. You’ll just end up with palate fatigue.
Own a dish, and the rewards here heighten. What is simply called “pork shoulder” on the menu arrives as a monolith-perfect brick of pulled meat, compressed and seared to a crackle, a pork Krispie treat. Rectangles of pan-fried corn pudding and compressed watermelon add more sharp edges and sweet flavors. A flurry of fine manchego cheese gratings over the top helps all the various parts of this dish play together.
Meloy does like sweetness more than I do, but I’m always happy to adjust because he knows how to layer flavors. Roasted beets pair well with whipped, aerated blue cheese, but then, when you factor in their canny garnish — thick rounds of candied shallot — a new harmony emerges.
Meloy and one other chef prepare the dishes from an open kitchen surrounded by an eating bar. The intimate setting is part of this restaurant’s charm, but it can take a while to plate the food, get it picked up by a waiter, and have it served.
You might at times get an aesthetically composed art project of cold, not well-executed ingredients. Rubbery-skinned snapper seems less interesting than its bed of chive-streaked crushed potatoes and fermented green tomato relish. Fried stuffed cherry bomb peppers are slick, slippery and briny on the outside, gushy on the cheesy inside and not terribly hot. I imagine this is what eating eyeballs is like.
Desserts are likable, intricate compositions, if not soul warmers. Of the ones we tried, I best liked a canny version of crêpes Suzette made with candied, pureed and fresh orange. The plate was so much fun to explore. A toffee cake seems dry by comparison and is a less successful dessert. But, man oh man, its garnish of sweet curry ice cream is a fantastic business.
Despite what I said earlier, you may need to share this dish. Everyone needs a taste of Better Half’s curry ice cream. The cooking at this intriguing restaurant stands alone in Atlanta.