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Old-Fashioned Dive In

Tuna tartare appetizer with avocado, crispy shallot, soy mirin sauce and crispy chips

Old-Fashioned Dive In

by Wendell Brock | Photography by Christopher Hornaday | Men's Book Atlanta magazine | November 18, 2013

Atlanta restaurateur Rich Clark is a Southern gentleman who’s well versed in the oyster dives of Apalachicola and New Orleans. He loves places where you can swig Miller High Life and get fired up about college football. His business partner, Jon Schwenk—a New York native and a fellow sports geek—is a prominent chef who trained under Eric Ripert at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, one of the most revered seafood restaurants on the planet. The fellows met in the early ’90s while working at Lenox Square’s late, great Brasserie Le Coze (sister restaurant to Le Bernardin). There, they learned about fancy European service and forged a friendship that led to the opening of Vinings’ C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar in 2007, and now, their new venture: Hugo’s Oyster Bar.

The guys are bringing heavenly highs to roll-up-your-sleeves foodies at Hugo’s, which—as Clark will proudly tell you—is a long, long way from fine dining, but still has the white tablecloths. Housed in an old barbecue spot on Alpharetta Highway, it’s what Clark describes as a “joint with good food.” In other words, you can expect an oyster bar where the beers are icy; the TVs are flashing with sports; and the po’boys are perennially packed with fresh, top-quality shrimp, crawfish and flounder. “It’s a guys’ place,” Clark declares, unapologetically. “We watch the Braves, and we’ve got buckets of beer.” Damn right, they do. They’ve also got crawfish-and-boudin balls, and peel-and-eat shrimp, classic cocktails and a thoughtful wine list.

On the fateful night when I checked out Hugo’s, I brought along an old pal who has been living in faraway Uganda—a place where oysters and Sazerac are in short supply. He was jonesing for Gulf Coast bivalves, and ready to throw back some booze. Hugo’s was calling.

While I swigged an excellent Bloody Mary and my buddy imbibed a Corpse Reviver No. 2—perfumed with absinthe—we considered the icy half shells before us: Apalachicolas, Blue Points and Virginia Sewansecotts. Now, I tend to enjoy a cocktail and mignonette sauce, but these pristine, sweet-tasting babes needed nothing more than a squirt of lemon. (Those Sewansecotts, in particular, were revelatory.) Not surprisingly, Hugo’s has a way with hot oysters, too. While we enjoyed the Rockefellers, we really fell for the namesake Hugo’s oysters: briny-rich tidbits swaddled in cheddar, bacon and jalapeno. Another round, please...

Of drinks, that is. This time, I nursed a wonderfully potent Sazerac, while my compadre swilled a Bourbon Smash (which is not really bourbon, but Jack Daniel’s, muddled orange and basil, and lemon) and proceeded to order smoked-trout dip and a small tuna tartare with avocado. The dip was simplicity itself—just enough mayo to moisten the fish—and so very good.

In my mind, you can’t judge a seafood house without sampling something fried. While we waited for our entrees, we crunched on a few nicely seasoned, cornmeal-crisped oysters and took in the room. The casual space—which they essentially designed themselves, with a little help from the firm Zakaspace—derives its appeal from a shiny tin ceiling, no-nonsense booths, enormous wide-screens and a sign of cutout letters on which “Hugo’s” is spelled out in bright, incandescent red bulbs.

And now for the entrees: Wait! Is that a hunk of fried mac and cheese with my friend’s redfish and tangy turnip greens? Yes, it is. Crunchy on the outside and melting on the inside, this decadent hot mess nearly eclipsed the main event: a slab of impeccably fresh, superbly grilled redfish. Schwenk really has a way of transforming unfussy catches with luscious sides. In the case of my lovely rainbow trout, that meant cream-style corn and little pods of fried okra.

For dessert, our server urged us to try the New Orleans-style brioche pudding with creme Anglaise. We did, and we don’t regret it. Personally, though, I can’t pass up a lemon icebox pie, and Hugo’s version sang to me in a tart, Key lime key.

While we didn’t plan on it, we ended up grazing our way through the entire menu. Such a thing likely happens here all the time. In a landlocked city, Clark and Schwenk deliver an authentic Gulf Coast experience. Bellies full and flapping like flounders, my friend and I are hooked.

Hugo’s Oyster Bar
10360 Alpharetta St., Roswell, 770.993.5922, hugosoysterbar.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu., 5-10pm.; Fri., 5-11pm; Sat., 11:30am-11pm; Sun., 11:30am-10pm
Prices: Starters, soups and salads, $6.50-$20; oysters and shrimp, $7-$23.50; entrees, $16.30-$30

The style: A classic fish house/oyster bar with a casual, sports-bar vibe. At night, it’s dark and date night-esque.

The bar: Expect 11 draft beers (including Guinness, Boulevard Tank and Miller Lite); 15 to 20 bottled beers (including Clown Shoes Clementine, Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA and Red Hare Long Day Lager); the wine list includes a nice selection of mostly French and West Coast bottles, and cocktails such as the classic Pimm’s Cup, plus new inventions like the Honeysuckle Ice Pick.