By Karen Head
While Atlanta has many amazing restaurants, occasionally there is good reason to take a day trip—get out of the city, breathe some new air, try some terrific new food. An easy two-hour escape to Clayton, GA offers just such an enticement. Clayton is a quickly developing community, rapidly changing from a sleepy town to a hub joining the posh Lake Burton and Lake Rabun communities and, only 15 miles north, to the thriving Highlands resort areas.
Just off the fairly commercial section of Clayton on Highway 441, is the old main street (accessible from Savannah Street). You will find a number of cafes and shops, including the nearly exact replica of Oakhurst’s’ beloved bar café, Universal Joint. You can go to U-Joint anytime, so I encourage you to try Fortify, Jamie Allred’s new restaurant. Jamie cut his chef’s teeth for several years at the Lake Rabun Hotel. Recently he has been named one of the top young chefs in America, two-years running! Have lunch or dinner here and you will immediately understand why.
I was in the area for a three-week writing residency at the nearby Hambidge Center for the Arts, so I had the opportunity to try Fortify for both lunch and dinner. The menu is packed with locally sourced, seasonal dishes—each one prepared with a bit of Southern flare.
My first experience was for dinner. My dining partner (aka, my husband), and I began our evening with selections from the excellent wine list. The bread basket (all homemade) arrived. The treat here was the two butters: one a garlic, Boursin style, another a sun-dried tomato. For starters, he had the butternut squash soup (more about this in a moment). I had the Gouda fritters with sweet pepper jelly. The fritters were very good, no grease, and dreamily gooey. The jelly made the flavors pop, and what can be a real miss in many restaurants was really exceptional. An order is very generous, so you will probably want to share. For our main courses, we chose the filet mignon with potatoes and silver-queen corn soufflé and the duck with gluten-free savory bread pudding and sautéed squash. The duck was presented in two ways, as a comfit leg and a breast pounded flat and “country fried” with delicate gravy. Once again, not grease spot in sight. The duck was perfect. The steak was cooked exactly as ordered, flavorful and paired nicely with the potatoes. The corn soufflé was outstanding. For dessert we shared a crème brûlée, with jam preserves nestled underneath. We topped off dessert with a cognac and ruby port—yes they also have a bar and make several signature cocktails.
On my second trip, I coaxed the server into bringing some of the day’s butter (duck fat and chive!), even though they don’t usually serve that except at dinner. Both my dining partner (a fellow resident artist) and I opted for the butternut squash soup. I had had a small taste at dinner, so I knew I wanted to try a cup. Butternut squash soup has become a bit of clichéd dish, usually uninspired and bland. This soup dances in your mouth, full of hints of orange, the smoothness of the crème fraise swirled on top, and the woodiness of toasted pumpkin seed garnish. For our main dishes (many are less expensive, smaller versions of the dinner selections), I had scallops with duck-fat fried potatoes and silver queen corn in a Romesco style sauce topped with sautéed spinach. My friend had the grits bowl, with shrimp and chicken, topped with a fried green tomato all floating in delicious red-eye gravy. Yummy, indeed!
The service during both visits was impeccable without being fussy or pretentious. It is an easy and pleasant atmosphere. The restaurant is not very large, and reservations are an absolute must most evenings. Prices are mid-range, $10-$14 for lunch entrees, $18-$24 for dinner entrees. They accommodate various dietary concerns, including gluten-free diets. You can spend a day admiring the mountain scenery and visiting art galleries, have a wonderful dinner, and still arrive back in home in the city in time for nightcap at your favorite local.
Fortify is located at 69 North Main Street, Clayton, GA. For more information, call (706) 782-0050 or visit fortifyclayton.com.