We took the bus. We were wearing flats. Cameras were strapped around our necks and we approached holding bold red World of Coca-Cola bags. One woman unabashedly stared, leaning in close to whisper something to a table mate, her eyes laughing at us. It was clear to all inside – the chic, the shamelessly suave, the glossy — that we were from out of town.
I was fine with it – our awkwardness. Partly because, well, I was from LA (kinda, sorta). And too, because it was my kind of place. Very LA (kinda, sorta): slick but not fancy; well-dressed but not polished. It was the type of place you want to take in slowly and enjoy – the atmosphere as much as your meal.
We almost missed it, our bus landing us in what first appeared to be an industrial part of Atlanta. Just as I was about to curse Google Maps for putting my life in danger, one of my fro-workers elbowed me and pointed across the street. “There it is,” she said once the bus pulled away, and there it was, shiny and pretty as if a mirage in the middle of a concrete and aluminum desert.
Even without a reservation, we were seated right away along with the sparkling, chatty crowd – young and professional Atlantans. Walking in and settling down at our table energized me; made me want to try something new. To be daring.
Perhaps we stood out from The Optimist’s hip clientele, but our waiter made us feel nothing but well at home despite our being a couple thousand miles away. First up for me was a cocktail called the Spiced Trade, a scrappy little concoction with tequila, lime juice, and Za’tar tincture. It savored with the refreshment of a mojito, but not as sweet, offering a punch – an edgy, layered flavor. The drink along with the comp yeast rolls (apparently a thing in the South) were enough alone to get me back my next time in Atlanta. I’d also enjoyed yeast rolls at Mary Mac’s, but the ones at Optimist were quite unique, the crust pretzel-like and the inside lush and lofty and thick.
Instead of a main dish, I went with two Starters to vary my experience some, selecting the seafood gumbo with “potluck” garlic bread and the whole GA white shrimp a la plancha. I’ve never ordered gumbo at a restaurant before. While I tried homemade versions as a kid when visiting family in Louisiana, it was only to satisfy my mom’s desire for me to try new things. In adulthood, I’d politely decline when asked if I wanted a bowl at get-togethers, knowing the dish would likely be full of pork (if you’re new to Dianderthal, I typically don’t indulge… but there’s always a chance to be persuaded). As did this one, offered with andouille sausage (I must admit, even as a non-porkian, sausage in my gumbo sounds superb). But the waiter shared that I could order a bowl minus the sausage, and so I did. Best decision of my Atlanta week.
The swampy broth, a shade under thick, was hearty and piquant. It satisfied on its own – the kind of experience you need when nursing a cold or stuck in the house on a blustery weekend. Then with it, add the vegetables that somehow managed to keep firm – even crisp – in the broth along with ample shrimp and other nuggets of the sea, and we’re talking magical swampy goodness.
Not wanting to neglect my second dish, I begrudgingly took a gumbo break to get into my GA shrimp. I hadn’t read the parenthetical next to this item on the menu that read “messy but worth it.” While it’s served spectacularly, you’re gonna get creamed, as the shrimp comes bathed in a gorgeous tomatoey (red peppery?) sauce. I anticipated the richness of the sauce but not its explosiveness. That sauce kicked my mouth’s ass. I took down three glasses of water with this dish. The heat is tempered some, however, with the thick slice of “sopping” break upon which the shrimp is served; bread that didn’t wither or slouch under the sauce. In fact, the perfect cross-sectional bite of a shrimp (the messiness comes from plucking one out from its tomato/red pepper bath and peeling it), the cream sauce, and the sopping bread – dreamy! If my mouth was a little more brave, I might have asked for a second piece of bread and sopped up what remained of that sauce.
But I had to go back to the gumbo. The gumbo, to cool my tongue – yes – but also, the gumbo, because it was so near perfection. I thought it the best way to end my meal (since I certainly had no room for dessert as we’d visited Optimist after a stop at Atlanta’s famed Varsity and a gas station Dunkin Doughnuts).
So this Cali girl left the South no longer hungry and very happy, particularly with The Optimist serving the final meal of my trip. Just hope this place is still hot and happening the next time I’m in the ATL. And I’ll keep my World of Coca-Cola bags in the car.
914 Howell Mill Road
61 North Avenue