Smoke Signal

by Jessie Ammons

photographs by Keith Isaacs

The idea began, as many do, over two stiff drinks. “My partner, Mike Thor, and I were at one of the best whiskey bars in town, Foundation,” says Jeff Mickel, co-founder of downtown’s Whiskey Kitchen. Both men have backgrounds in the local restaurant scene, and had been “toying around” with the idea of opening their own place. “As we were having a whiskey that night we thought, ‘Let’s open a whiskey joint.’ And then we did.”

Whiskey Kitchen opened in August 2016, just a few years after those aforementioned cocktails, and it’s more than a joint, boasting a sophisticated food menu to match its well-stocked bar. Mickel says creating a restaurant-bar hybrid was a given, a way to enhance both the food and the drinks.

There are gussied up Southern favorites – buttermilk biscuits studded with pork cracklin’s, boiled peanuts, dirty rice – and also modern American dishes ranging from a hearty grain bowl with farro and grilled vegetables to a lamb burger (the overwhelming crowd favorite, Mickel says). The common denominator is intentional: smoke. Biscuits are topped with a dollop of smoked cream, the grain bowl’s yogurt dressing is infused with roasted piquillo peppers, desserts include charred fruit toppings. “We view smoke as a technique or an element instead of just, say, smoking a pig,” says chef Jonathan Botta.  “We’re smoking creams, we’re smoking oils, we’re adding that depth to every part of the menu.”

And pairing it with the restaurant’s namesake spirit. “Smoke is the flavor profile that goes well with whiskey,” says Botta. All kinds of it: The restaurant has more than 100 whiskeys, bourbons, and scotches ready to pour.

Botta has led the culinary side of Whiskey Kitchen since its start, after co-founder and chef Mike Thor was sidelined in November 2015 by a severe spinal cord injury from a motorcycle accident that delayed the restaurant’s opening and has necessitated Thor’s extended rehabilitation in Atlanta. In Thor’s absence – and with his collaboration – Botta has created a creative but classic Southern menu. “In general, Southern food and bourbon go hand-in-hand,” Botta says. “Barbecue and bourbon. We’ve had that correlation, we don’t have to try too hard to improve upon it.”

Clearly, the combination works. Whiskey Kitchen’s funky-industrial open-layout space is nearly always packed, from suited colleagues snacking on smoked fish dip and beers on a weekday afternoon to groups lingering over Old Fashioneds till the wee weekend hours. “We wanted to have a whiskey bar that also has world-class food,” Mickel says, pausing to take a good look around. “I think we’ve achieved that.”

Beet salad with smoked blue cheese and hazelnuts

Serves 6-8

6 medium to large braised beets (recipe below), cooked and cut

1 1/2 cup red wine maple vinaigrette (recipe below)

1 pound local greens

1 cup of roasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped

1 cup of smoked blue cheese, or your favorite blue cheese

For braised beets: 

6 medium to large red or golden beets

1/2 cup white wine

1 tablespoon peppercorns

4 cloves garlic, smashed

1/4 cup canola or olive oil

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon fennel seed

3 bay leaves

For red wine maple vinaigrette: 

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon spicy mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

3/4 cup canola or neutral oil

1 tablespoon shallot, finely minced

Mix beets, greens, and desired amount of dressing together (or serve dressing on side). Transfer to salad bowl or portion onto plates. Garnish with toasted hazelnuts and blue cheese.

Braised Beets: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut beet tops off of beets, leaving one inch of stem connected. Combine whole beets and remaining ingredients in an oven-safe pot (the beets should be snug in the pot). Add water just to cover beets. Cover pot with lid or foil. Cook in oven for two hours, or until beets are cooked through and fork tender. When beets are cooked, strain off the braising liquid and discard. Remove beets and let cool. After beets have cooled down to touch, take a kitchen towel (beware that beets will stain, so use an old towel) and rub beets with it to take off skin. Cut beets into 8 pieces each and set aside.

Red wine maple vinaigrette: Add all ingredients except shallots and oil to a blender or bowl. Whisk or blend until well combined. Slowly add oil, while whisking or blending, until combined and emulsified. In separate bowl, add shallots and dressing mixture and combine. Refrigerate until serving.

Mickel recommends pairing Bernheim Original wheat whiskey; its winter wheat mashbill leads to a delicate flavor that’s perfect alongside this light salad.

Smoked fish dip

Serves 8-10

4 cups smoked fish, picked and flaked

1/4 cup Duke’s mayo

1 tablespoon spicy mustard

1/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon dill, chopped

1/4 cup pickled shallots (recipe below), chopped

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

For pickled shallots: 

1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

1/2 cup water

1 tablespoon sugar

2 teaspoons salt

2 pieces star anise

1 teaspoon coriander seed

1 teaspoon whole black pepper

Toss the smoked fish and chopped pickled shallots together until well combined. Whisk together mayo, mustard, sour cream, heavy cream, dill, salt, and pepper. Fold in the fish mixture. Once the dip is combined, place in jars to serve and garnish with remaining pickled shallots, a sprig of dill, and a dash of olive oil (optional). Serve with bagel chips, crackers, or toasted bread.

Pickled Shallots: Combine all ingredients except shallots in pot and bring to boil. Pour hot pickling liquid over shallots. Let stand for at least 30 minutes.

Mickel recommends pairing Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon; its full body stands up to with this smoky, pickled dip, while its dark fruit sweetness also subtly complements the dip.


Candied yam with pecan butter and marshmallows

Serves 6

6 medium sweet potatoes

1/4 cup blended oil

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons pepper

6 bay leaves

1 bag large marshmallows (or make your own, recipe below)

1/2 pound pecan butter (recipe below)

1 tablespoon smoked sea salt (optional)

For pecan butter: 

1/2 pound butter, softened

1/4 cup maple syrup

1/4 cup chopped pecans

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

For marshmallows: 

2 ounces granulated sugar

10 ounces corn syrup

4 ounces room temperature water

5 gelatin sheets

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/2 cup cornstarch

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss sweet potatoes in salt, pepper, and oil. Wrap sweet potatoes individually in foil, placing one bay leaf with each potato. Place in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until fork tender. Cut open potatoes and add desired amount of pecan butter. Place back in oven for 2-5 minutes more, or until butter is just melted. Take potatoes out of oven and place marshmallow on top of the butter. At this point, if you have a home kitchen torch, you can toast the marshmallow with it. If not, place in oven with broiler on high for a few minutes until toasted. Serve on plate or in foil. Garnish with a dash of smoked sea salt.

Pecan butter: Whip butter, syrup, and salt for 7-8 minutes until it doubles in volume. Add chopped pecans and mix just to incorporate. Pour onto parchment or wax paper, roll into cylinder shape, and chill overnight, or use the pecan butter at room temperature.

Marshmallows: Put water and gelatin in the bowl of electric mixer and let bloom (dissolving gelatin). In a saucepan, combine corn syrup and sugar. Stir together, and bring to a boil until it reaches 230 degrees, using a candy thermometer. When the sugar reaches 230, pour at a steady stream into mixer. When all the sugar is added, finish whipping on high speed for 8 minutes (this helps the mixture double in size and slowly cool down enough to be warm to the touch). Mix powdered sugar and cornstarch together. Coat a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick spray, then a generous sprinkling of the sugar-cornstarch mixture. Pour marshmallow mixture into pan and even out. Once even, put the remaining powdered sugar and cornstarch mixture on top evenly (this helps avoid sticking). Let set for 4 hours or overnight. Once set, pop out the mallow onto a board and cut into desired shapes.

Mickel recommends pairing Ardbeg Corryvreckan single malt scotch; the scotch’s deep peaty, peppery notes balance the yams’ candied sweetness.