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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Club at Chops

Where to Smoke & Eat in Hotlanta

By Christopher Barry

After breezing past the maître d' with a knowing glance, you weave past the restaurant's patrons to the open-air kitchen, eyes furtively scanning the room, wondering if anyone noticed the two-robusto bulge inside your sport coat. One sharp glance back as you slide your magnetic keycard through the reader and enter a classy speakeasy of the new Prohibition, a much-needed haven for smokers in a time when enjoying a cigar requires double-0 style secrecy. This is The Club at Chops, a semi-private dining room in one of Atlanta's premier steak houses, and the ultimate place to smoke in the city.

Although the Bond routine isn't necessary, you could dine at Chops dozens of times without knowing of The Club's existence. In 2000, Buckhead Life Restaurant Group founder and owner—and cigar aficionado—I. Pano Karatassos opened The Club at Chops as a gathering place for friends, and he approves every new member. "It's like a family here, honestly, even between the staff and the members," says Jim Monteleone, The Club's general manager. "Many of the servers have been here for five, six years and even since the Club opened." The membership, which comprises both men and women, stands at roughly 650, including some non-Atlanta residents.

Inside the humidor room—which with its sliding track ladders more resembles a library—brass nameplates delineate the private boxes of cigar-storing club members, who range from a certain NBA analyst with a unique golf swing to one of Napa's most celebrated winemakers. More than 200 personal humidors are available for rental.

Annual dues for membership are $700 for individuals and $1,900 for corporate memberships, which grants access to four members of the same company. But there's a new way to score a spot at The Club, among the vivid hues of leather and mosaic tile, and that's to secure a one-day pass ($25) and a reservation. Though you probably won't be seated at the Frank Sinatra or the Ray Charles tables (the best seats in the house, named for the portraits on the walls above them), you'll still have access to the humidor with 10 different cigar brands for sale (La Gloria Cubana Serie R No. 7 and Davidoff Special "R", among others), the live jazz five nights a week, the top-shelf liquor and the extensive wine list, plus the full restaurant menu.

Though the perks and contemporary speakeasy ambience are impressive, the cuisine is exceedingly noteworthy. Our surf and turf included a lightly battered, flash-fried half jumbo lobster tail and a barrel-cut filet mignon, served with some seriously substantial onion rings and a sauté of spinach and mushrooms crowned with parmesan. A twist of lemon in the sautéed spinach provides a perfect hint of acidity to pair with the steak and to balance the sweetness of the lobster and its best friend, drawn butter. The locally sourced prime beef is hand-selected based upon the farms where the cattle were raised; the steaks, including several sizes of filet mignon, New York strip and the carnivore's holy grail, Wagyu Kobe beef, then undergo a 45-day wet aging process to maximize tenderness. A two-sided simultaneous sear at 1,800 degrees results in a seasoned salt char top and bottom while the cool red center is concentrated with the beef's natural juices. It's a steak that begs to be eaten like an apple and celebrated with a caveman grunt. Instead, diners toast with Port and fire up Macanudos with a domino effect: as soon as one person lights up, everyone does.

Mr. Bond would be proud.

The Club at Chops
70 West Paces Ferry Road
Atlanta, Georgia 30305

Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Monday-Thursday 5:30 p.m.-11:00 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 5:30 p.m.-Midnight
Sunday 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.