Duke’s Bar & Grill in Milton

By Joe Duffy

I was a faithful groupie of one-time Atlanta Chef Richard Blais previous to his ascension as a celebrity via Top Chef. My grubbing Golden Rule is, if I claim I don’t like something, you know I’ve tried it. Blais’s inventiveness and cutting-edge creations, such as the famed foie gras milkshake, paired perfectly with my adventurous wheelhouse.

However, there is ample space in my heart and stomach for familiar, well-executed, timeless dishes. Enter veteran Chef Todd Hogan. The James Beard recurring guest chef, DiRona award winner and Johnson & Wales-trained master chef isn’t endeavoring to reinvent the wheel. He’s too occupied with perfecting it. I’ve delighted in at least six of Hogan’s current and former restaurants.

Even including his brief stint at the incompetently-managed, squandered potential of Slate, all of his enterprises have demonstrated that Hogan cooks both comfortable, American casual and fine dining as well as anyone. Going from one extreme to the other, Hogan transformed high-end, special-occasion restaurant Indigo (the second incarnation) into his most casual concept—Duke’s Bar & Grill.

“I overdid it with design,” Hogan said, in confirming the high-end Indigo redux limited patrons in family-oriented Crabapple to being only a special occasion place. “If I can only see you on your birthday or anniversary, that’s not what I want.”

Pat & Gracie’s in Columbus, Ohio tops a short list of restaurants rivaling Hogan’s tater tots as the best I’ve ever had. Duke’s version incorporates cheddar cheese, trotting them atop the tot lot. Yes, I’ve supped ITP’s Fox Brothers, Roswell’s Lucky’s, and Alpharetta’s The Nest Cafe. All are credentialed nominees, but Duke’s is peerless this side of the Buckeye State.

Also quintessential are his humongous onion rings, drizzled with spicy honey and topped with white cheddar. But the topmost appetizer may be his lightly fried lobster poppers.

Frying a delicacy is a risky proposition. Deep frying is always the first option for masking lower-quality fish like catfish and tilapia. Mind you, I love fried catfish (you can keep the tilapia) but there is the inherent peril of the unintended consequence of concealing the greatness of lobster. Then again, the fried lobster tail at McKendrick’s ranks among the greatest foodstuff I’ve ever had. Clearly when well-executed, high-quality fried lobster has a high payoff.

Oh hell, Hogan has already proven at sister restaurant Branch & Barrel at Avalon that he knows exactly what he’s doing with the corn fried lobster sandwich. He successfully administers the embodiment of fried marine life with the mentioned small bite at Duke’s.

Wife’s monthly gossip… err I mean book club members report, Duke’s fried pickled green beans should be on my bucket list. My wife is obsessed with fried pickles, giving two thumbs up on the closest plate at Duke’s to said infatuation.

Todd’s record shows he formulates first course items skillfully. At his sister restaurants, Branchwater in Cumming and the aforesaid Branch & Barrel, Hogan has the loftiest beer pretzel OTP. Oh gosh, procure that horseradish sour cream dip if you are keyed up by life-changing eats. At his three currently open restaurants, Hogan parades many contenders for the best American staple dishes I’ve ever had. In saying Duke’s fried chicken is a slight notch below Table & Main’s as my bride’s and my favorite is hardly damning with faint praise. It’s merely an homage to another of the area’s restaurant giants. Hogan’s fried yard bird is better than 95 percent you’ll find. That’s serious acclaim in these parts.

Nothing says American like a mushroom Swiss burger and mac and cheese.

Duke’s pecan-crusted grouper is luscious. This Milton/Crabapple eating house also outperforms most with family-friendly comfort food such as meatloaf, rosemary roasted chicken, burgers, and salads.

Yes, sous vide, nitrogen food, nouvelle cuisine and whatever future cooking techniques evolve, all have appeal to me. But unlike many of my fellow food snobs, I don’t want to be all chic, all the time. There’s no need to outsmart the room. Some dishes are timeless. Hogan made it clear that he prefers time-proven techniques such as braising and roasting over “dummy proof” sous-vide.

God willing, I have at least 35 years of gluttony ahead of me. Yes, my life is complete if I never consume rice pilaf again. But whichever blockhead determined beef stroganoff, Swedish meatballs, and chicken Kiev are no longer worthy of appearing on menus can kiss my grits. Thankfully, Hogan excels in dishes that were great in decades past and likely will be for posterity. There is no better “old school” chef. ❍

When he’s not eating, which is rare, the author is CEO of Sports Handicapping website Offshore Insiders. His bride’s gift site, Duffy Gifts is the place to go for gifts for all occasions from My Thirty One Gifts.