Is Abel Brown the best restaurant in Augusta, Georgia? It’s not the fanciest or most formal. In fact, it’s a casual place, although service is as precise as a Swiss watch. Nothing on the fairly limited menu is stunningly creative. But there isn’t a dish in the house that is less than marvelous. Front and center is a panoply of exquisitely fresh oysters from all the coasts; steaks are expertly grilled; cocktails are gorgeous. You will pay plenty for the pleasure of eating here — dinner for two with a few drinks easily tops $100 — but if any meal is worth that much, this one is. If I were rich, I’d eat at Abel Brown at least once a week. As it is, for a special-occasion spurge, there’s no place in this part of the world I’d rather be.
About those cocktails. First, there’s an oyster shooter. That’s a shot glass containing a James River oyster, horseradish vodka, and bloody Mary mix. Pow! Among the more creative highballs are “Jazz at the Pit Stop,” which is Laird’s Apple Brandy, lemon juice, and sparkling wine; “Tea Hive,” which is Tito’s vodka, Elderflower liquor, chamomile tea, and orange blossom honey; and a “Kentucky Mule,” made with ginger beer and bourbon rather than vodka. Draught, cans, and bottles of beer are available from around the nation and the world.
House oysters are James River lovelies, which are plump, mild, and slightly sweet — utterly fresh if not all that exciting. In addition to them is a selection of about a half-dozen specialty oysters, which are described in such terms as “briny burst,” “meaty with a clean finish,” “savory and sweet with a dry finish.” They are rated for salinity and are available singly, by the half dozen or dozen — simply opened on the half shell on a tray of ice or doctored up with the likes of Stoli vodka, creme fraiche, caviar, and little bits of sweet watermelon (that’s an Imperial Oyster), or Rockefellered with spinach, Pernod, shallots, and Parmesan, or broiled with jalapeno peppers, lime butter, and Parmesan.
Beyond oysters every-which-way, starters include smoked and crisp-fried chicken wings, an artisan charcuterie board, and some beautiful salads, including a wedge made with buttery Bibb lettuce and a roasted golden beet salad of frisee lettuce laced with pickled plums and pecans. One special appetizer in January was steak tartare topped with pickled shallots and a quail egg, accompanied by marrow-rubbed toast points.
The list of available entrees is short — six items long, plus a daily special or two. Every dish I’ve tried is excellent, even if it is something of an anti-climax after bingeing on such superlative oysters. Especially notable are steaks — large, ultra-tender and remarkably flavorful filet mignon accompanied by gruyere mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach and a well-marbled smoked ribeye that comes with foraged mushrooms and blackened potato wedges. Shrimp and cheddar grits is a nicely tweaked Dixie classic: big, buff shrimp are accompanied by lengths of extremely spicy andouille sausage and a couple of whole fried okra pods.
For dessert, there are creme brulee, Key lime pie in a Mason jar, ice cream, sorbet, and a crazy-good chocolate croissant bread pudding ribboned with chocolate ganache and sopped with Wild Turkey bourbon creme, best enjoyed a la mode. Among post-prandial digestifs are brandies, ports, and espresso mead.