The Kimball House Heresy: Decatur’s new eatery conjures up old memories
The hostess table at the Kimball House is an old pulpit, its raised wooden cross just at the eye level of patrons waiting for a table.
Don’t let the decor deceive. The restaurant’s philosophy on how to eat oysters is pure heresy.
It’s one of the few culinary matters where I have some credentials. I’m from Mobile, Ala., and for people living on the Gulf Coast, raw oysters are part of life. They arrive at your table glistening on a bed of ice, smelling faintly of sea water. You cover that smell up using whatever tabletop hokum your father passed down to you. My father drenched his in cocktail sauce mixed with an assortment of other condiments the waitress placed at arm’s length. He ate it on top of a salad cracker and you could hear the juice straining through the bristles of his mustache as he slurped.
The objective of eating oysters, for me, was pretending you knew the best way to cover up their natural flavor. Not so at Kimball House, where the act of eating the popular molluscs is a ritual that combines the arts of wine tasting and ordering sushi. You get a menu with flavor descriptions of each offering, promising subtle homages to comforting tastes, like cream and salt. The only sauce is a bit of vinegar in a jar topped off with a medicine dropper and a wedge of lemon served on the side.
Meditating on the flavor profile of these meaty little critters is not something my father’s down-the-hatch approach prepared me for. I found some oysters that I liked – the stingrays were my favorite because they were the closest to what I ate in Mobile – but others were antagonistically salty. Like eating Sushi, eating oysters at Kimball House is a choose-your-own-adventure foodie story.
I enjoyed everything else. I got the short rib, a small plate full of tender, juicy meat surrounded by roasted root vegetables, and my wife ordered the Hoppin’ John and mushroom dish. We were both loved the sunchokes, an earthy vegetable also known as the Jerusalem artichoke.
The Kimball House is located at the old train depot on East Howard. It’s a location that’s seen a few restaurants come and go. In fact, I visited one of its earlier incarnations on my very first reconnaissance trip to Atlanta, in anticipation of my eventual move here. I’ll be damned if I can remember what the name of the restaurant at the time. There was a karaoke DJ there that night, I do remember, and I may or may not have covered a Cake song.
All I can distinctly recall was thinking about how intimidating it felt, moving to a place I didn’t know inhabited by people from all over the world. I didn’t even know then that I was in Decatur. It was all just one place to me, Atlanta, and it was whatever I wanted to make of it.
I only mention this because I ate at Kimball House on Dec. 27, the same day I officially announced I will be leaving my day job with Reporter Newspapers, effective Jan. 10, to pursue Decaturish full time. It was was a funny coincidence: I was celebrating my next career move in the same place where, nearly three years ago, I was wondering about my future.
Not that I ever stopped wondering about it.
My dad always talked about eating oysters as though their flesh contained some secret ingredient for success. The Kimball House continues to dazzle critics with its cocktails and its enterprising menu. There might be something to all that. I’m going to need all the help I can get. More stingray oysters, please.