Atlanta’s a good place to be right now. “People are finally moving back to the city; the energy’s back,” says chef and restaurateur Angus Brown, who owns the popular Octopus Bar with partner Nhan Le. “There are also more and more [urban] farmers popping up and they’re growing really cool stuff; not just collard greens and tomatoes, but bamboo shoots and young ginger.” Early next year Brown and Le will introduce the city to their newest concept, a 40-seat restaurant called Ama, and will shutter their other eatery, the highly acclaimed Lusca, to fucus on the new project. We talked to Brown as he surveyed his new building about why he’s moving and how he’s seen the Atlanta food landscape change.
What can people expect from your new restaurant?
There’s a development in Atlanta called the BeltLine. It’s similar to the High Line in New York: an old rail path that’s been reused as a walking path and park. We’re going to be on the path, right across the street from Ponce City Market, an old brick Sears building that has been turned into a food complex similar to Chelsea Market.
It’s going to be called Ama. Ama were free divers, predominately women, in Japan. It goes back like 2,000 years. They basically just wore loin cloths and dove for pearls and lobsters and oysters and sea urchins. We’re going to sell a lot of wood-grilled seafood and oysters at Ama, so I thought it was a perfect name for us. It’s going to be our main spot.
What brought you to the BeltLine area?
Our two restaurants, Octopus Bar and Lusca, are on opposite sides of Atlanta. Ponce City Market is kind of in the center of the city and it’s really booming. For years people were living outside the perimeter of Atlanta. Over the past 10 years a lot of the cool buildings were torn down to build shitty condominiums, but we’re starting to reuse these old buildings. People are finally moving back to the city; the energy’s back. It’s a good place to be right now.
How have you seen Atlantans’ tastes change since you opened Octopus Bar in 2011?
You know, we’re lucky. With Octopus Bar, right out of the gate we were serving things like sea urchin and people were really into it. I’m originally from Atlanta, but I left when I was 15. I moved back four years ago. That was kind of the first year that we started to have local farmers markets. CFM, Atlanta’s community of farmers markets, wasn’t really around until a couple of years ago. Now there are more and more [urban] farmers popping up and they’re growing really cool stuff; not just collard greens and tomatoes, but bamboo shoots and young ginger. There’s a lot of foraging too, which I don’t think was really happening before. Atlanta is basically a wooded area and outside of it there’s lots of streams that are very conductive to awesome mushrooms. So now I’m having farmers coming to the back of my restaurant trying to sell me 20 pounds of chicken of the woods mushrooms. I used to cook in Oregon in early 2000 and that was common day there. Now all the chefs here are getting into it.
Why do you think farmers changed from growing collard greens to bamboo shoots?
I think chefs are looking for that kind of stuff. They’re exploring different foods like Szechuan and Japanese rather than just sticking to like the one food they were brought up training on. I came up working in French restaurants. I saw a lot of it and I just kind of focused on that. But the interest is there more and more.
I wasn’t really living in Atlanta until four years ago, so I would come back for the holidays and constantly see the city that I left changing. I almost feel like it went really far and people are kind of dialing things in and getting back to more simple and straightforward stuff now. People were really excited and now they’re getting focused.
Is traditional Southern food in decline?
Nah, when I think of Atlanta food, that’s still what I think of. I think the restaurants that do those things really well are still some of the most exciting spots in town. There’s a soul food spot called Busy Bee Café that’s been open for 80 years. It’s still in the food that we do. Like we are doing a field pea dish right now with chilies and bacon, which reminds me of the old-school Southern food that I grew up eating but it’s definitely got a little more to it.
Your restaurants have extensive bar programs. Is there a lot of pressure on chefs to focus on drinks now?
Yeah, absolutely. The bar is defiantly pretty high in Atlanta. Cocktails were one of the things that people were really getting into before they were into food. It’s almost like the food renaissance here started secondary to that. Now we have all these great distributors and are trying to sell really niche and boutique stuff that’s a little more interesting than oaked Chardonnay. People are getting into cool sake programs, things like that.
Octopus Bar is known for being a favorite hangout of the industry crowd, people who work in bars and restaurants. How do you keep it so friendly to them?
Octopus Bar is basically a patio that has a tarp roof on the side of a Vietnamese restaurant. It was just supposed to be temporary, but it took off. It’s in East Atlanta, where a lot of cooks and artists live. And it opens at 10:30 P.M., so we don’t even get started until many of them are getting off work. They have a chance to get a full, interesting meal past 12 A.M. rather than just pizza and chicken wings. The first couple of months if someone sitting in there wasn’t a buddy of ours, we’d be like ‘who the fuck is that?’ At Ama we’re also going to sell food until 1:30 A.M. without any pretension. It feels good in there. We’re able to enjoy what we do and have a good time.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep