Georgia was on his mind, and you can taste it in every bite of the inspired Southern classics-with-a-twist served in the Alpharetta outpost of Chef Cory Harwell’s Carson Kitchen. I caught up with Chef Harwell to discuss his vision for bringing the eatery (which started in a Las Vegas neighborhood) home to where he was raised outside of Atlanta, and also to try out the restaurant’s “re-imagined comfort food” with a fine-dining flourish.
Every part of the journey of bringing the restaurant from Las Vegas back home to Georgia with a second location was carefully planned by Chef Harwell. In a year where so much has been turned upside down by the pandemic, it’s a testament to his dedication and talent that the restaurant successfully opened and continued to operate, garnering rave reviews.
Fortunately for those looking to be as safe as possible during this time, Carson’s Kitchen offers outdoor seating with a cozy outdoor fireplace for warmth and ambience. Staff wear masks throughout service, as do patrons while not eating or drinking. The staff is doing all they can to keep employees and guests as safe as possible by following all recommended guidelines and incorporating social distancing and thorough sanitizing procedures into their routine – indoors and out.
From Sin City back to the South
Harwell grew up in the area, and he began working in restaurants as a young teen – first washing dishes, then moving to other food service jobs like delivering pizza and working in fast food throughout high school. When he moved to New York City for college, his passion for the work became evident. “I realized that there is no aspect of our life, whether it’s something we celebrate, commemorate, even mourn – every single aspect of our life, we acknowledge that with some form of food or beverage,” shares Harwell.
When he opened Carson Kitchen more than 6 years ago in Las Vegas, his vision was to open a great neighborhood restaurant downtown and to celebrate all that the area has to offer. After being open for a few years and talking to so many wonderful people from around the country who came through the doors, Harwell realized what they had built – their thoughtful approach to food and service and the genuine hospitable nature of the experience – was sorely missing from other markets.
To be able to carry his vision that he had brought up with love in Las Vegas back home to the Atlanta area was a dream come true. The culture and the people of Georgia molded Harwell into who he is today, and he is proud to bring home the brand he created and introduce it to the people that helped him get to that point. Carson Kitchen is truly a family affair here in Georgia – on my visit, I was delighted to even meet Harwell’s cousin Molly who works at the Alpharetta outpost.
Southern flair with a whole lot of class
Across all three locations of Carson Kitchen, the menu is mostly consistent, with a third to half of the menu items rotating three times a year to incorporate fresh, seasonal choices. This ensures guests can find their favorite dishes in each of the restaurant’s locations.
However, the beverages in each city are very different, and local wines, beers and spirits are celebrated. The menu consists of tapas-style small plates, so it’s ideal for sharing and sampling many of the restaurant’s unique and delicious creations. Creative cocktails stand out on the menu as well and are a step above your standard beverage selection.
On the “Shaken & Stirred” portion of the menu, there are some excellent cocktails with fresh flavors and creative titles, like The Magarian – named for one of the founders of Aviation Gin, Ryan Magarian. This cocktail refreshes with Aviation American gin, thyme and honey syrup, fresh lemon and cucumber soda. Or try the Get Shorty!, a fresh and tart spin on a margarita with Blanco tequila, grapefruit, fresh lime, simple syrup and a finishing bite of cayenne.
The Fine, You? was inspired by Harwell’s father, who would answer the phone with “Fine, you?” when someone called. A twist on an Old Fashioned, this cocktail is a Southern classic with rye whiskey, honey, orange blossom, fernet, amaro and bitters.
The menu is split into sections including Social Plates, Between Bread, Meat & Fish, Farm & Garden, Flatbreads and Something Sweet.
A standout favorite of Social Plates are the Crispy Chicken Skins served with smoked, spiced honey for dipping. This dish was inspired by Harwell’s habit of sneaking into the kitchen after church on Sundays as a child where his mother and grandmother were making fried chicken. When their backs were turned, he would eat the fried chicken skins. This memory convinced him they had to be on the menu at Carson Kitchen, and they’re still irresistible.
The Bacon Jam is everything you would want in an appetizer – sweet, savory, spicy, smokey and creamy. This dish features bacon, havarti and toasted baguette slices. The flavor is like a spicy sweet barbecue that you can’t get enough of.
One of Harwell’s intentions for Carson Kitchen was to bring fine dining ingredients to everyday dishes, and the “Devil’s” Eggs featuring caviar are one of the best examples of this.
The Tempura Green Beans are a true must-have, just by the exquisite and innovative pepper jelly cream cheese included for dipping. It’s a new treat with a flavor that’s familiar and delightful.
On to the main course, the Meat & Fish portion of the menu will have you coming back to try everything at least once. Try the Chicken Thighs – moist and perfectly seasoned chicken thighs with crispy prosciutto atop a bed of Swiss Mornay, a creamy, cheesy cousin to béchamel sauce that is unexpected, but perfect.
Steak lovers will beeline for the Cocoa-Espresso NY Strip cooked to perfection with a red wine demi which highlights the cut’s natural flavor.
The Farm & Garden portion offers Young Beets, a fresh, simple dish sure to please. A simple beet salad is accompanied by goat cheese bites rolled in pistachios and mandarin orange slices topped with microgreens and a sweet and tangy citrus glaze.
Absolutely one of the most incredible dishes on the menu is the baked mac and cheese – and the only description of this dish is “shhh it’s a secret!” Nothing says comfort food more than this delicious cheesy, gooey, crispy goodness.
Finally if you have any room left over, the desserts of Carson Kitchen are just as noteworthy as the rest of the offerings. The Bourbon Fudge Brownie is moist and chocolatey, but it’s outshined by its accompanying brown butter bacon ice cream. This ice cream is made in-house, and it’s even better than it sounds.
Or try the sweet and creamy Glazed Donut Bread Pudding featuring three rum caramel and a vanilla crème anglaise. It’s rich, soft and sweet, and it’s a dish that keeps people coming back to Carson Kitchen for more.
Carson Kitchen is a one-of-a-kind culinary and hospitality experience, and Chef Harwell’s vision is clear in every aspect of the restaurant – from the ambience to the service to the food and drinks. The restaurant plans to offer delivery soon in Alpharetta, but until then, it’s worth a trip to pick up some food to-go or sit and indulge by the cozy fire outside.
Guests will certainly feel the thoughtful planning that went into the soul of Carson Kitchen and the chef’s credo that “there’s no greater way of connecting with another human being in my opinion than over food and drink.”
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