Decatur's Cakes & Ale opened the doors of its original location on West Ponce de Leon Avenue in 2008, at a time when Decatur was still a few years away from becoming the true dining destination it is today. Over the past seven years, chef and owner Billy Allin's creative, seasonally inspired menu has cemented Cakes & Ale's reputation as not only one of area's finest restaurants, but one that also continues to draw national accolades.
Eater recently sat down to talk about wine, food, and Cakes & Ale's ongoing growth with Melissa Davis, assistant sommelier. Davis, along with beverage director Jordan Smelt, curates the wine list at Cakes & Ale, as well as its newly opened wine bar and retail shop next door to the restaurant.
Tell us a little bit about your background, how you became interested in wine, and your role as sommelier at Cakes & Ale?
My very first job was in tea, and then I moved into coffee and spent a lot of time working with food and catering in small restaurants and bars. I've always liked working with people and I'm continually drawn back to working with people in restaurants. Right after Billy and Kristen opened Cakes & Ale in the original location in 2008, I was hired as a food runner, which was fine, as I didn't know anything at the time. I worked my way up from the bottom and there's not a job in this restaurant I haven't done, from server, to bartender, to sommelier. Seeing Billy's passion for food really catapulted my passion for everything else, including food. The dining experience can change so drastically based on what you are drinking with it. Whether it's the perfectly paired wine, a craft cocktail, or a great beer, it really changes everything.
Can you tell us your philosophy/approach to the wine list at Cakes & Ale?
When Cakes & Ale first opened, Billy handled everything on the wine list and we didn't carry anything traditional. There were no Chardonnays on the list or anything like that. When Jordan took over the program, he really honed it and expanded it at the same time. Every wine that we taste we are constantly thinking about how it will fit with what is on the menu. We are constantly thinking about Billy's food in terms of the wines we buy for the list. We have some really fun and eccentric stuff. Right now we have Ametzoi's red from Getariako Txakolina, a Spanish rose that were pouring by the glass. It's an awesome wine and so fun. But we have to push people out of their comfort zones to try something like that Txakolina. So, we push them a bit to try something new, but it's an experience they they're not going to get anywhere else. I don't know anyone else pouring red Tzakolina by the glass. That's exciting to me as it's really a fantastic wine.
What are a couple of your favorite bottles on the list right now?
One of my favorites on the list right now is the 2010 Gerard Duplessis Chablis Montmain, a Premier Cru that is the perfect young Chablis. It shows racy acidity and grassy notes and is just drinking great — a wine that will make you weak in the knees at the price point of $70 on our list, which is a steal for Premier Cru Chablis. We also have the 2013 Nero D'Avola from Cos out of Sicily for $48 that is just delicious. We do have a much larger and more extensive list in the restaurant, and somewhat less expensive bottles in the wine bar where everything is under $75.
What about a great splurge bottle if I'm out celebrating?
We have some incredible Italian wines from Paolo Bea on the list, like the 2007 Montefalco Sagrantino, which is $145 on our list. His wines are so fun, every wine is different, and they are all stellar. He is also a 100 percent natural winemaker. They are expensive wines, but totally worth it. For a while we also had a white Burgundy on the list, a 2009 Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru from Domaine de Montille that was $210. It was absolutely outstanding and worth every penny.
What's a hot wine region that you are a fan of right now?
Personally, I've been in love with the Loire Valley in France for a long time. From the Atlantic Ocean to the central vineyards, you can get anything you want. There are more grapes grown in the Loire Valley than anywhere else in France. I'm all about Loire Valley, from Sancerre, Vouvray, Savennieres, Gamay, all of it. In the wine bar we have the Pierre Breton Bourgueil "Trinch," which is 100 percent Cabernet Franc. The wines tend to be nicely balanced, with beautiful violets, pepper, and that slight vegetal quality. I love the Loire Valley; my plan is to retire there.
How do you approach pairing wines with dishes on the menu, considering the menu changes a lot according to season and what's available locally?
One of the biggest challenges on the restaurant side is that we change our list of wines we serve by the glass a couple of times a week, and the whole thing changes every few weeks to go with Billy's changing menu. This means we do a lot of training with staff so that they know how to pair and what to think about when they are drinking the wines. We make our changes as often as Billy changes his menu. It keeps everybody on their toes.
How do you build relationships with customer who come in and are looking for recommendations about ordering wine?
Because we change the list a lot, it's almost like we force our guests to be a little bit uncomfortable because they can't come in and always get the same Chardonnay. But it's good, because it also makes our customers trust us. Billy spent years getting people to trust his cooking because he's always changing the menu, and it's a similar situation with the wine list.
You've certainly seen some changes in Decatur in the last five years or so. What's made Decatur the hotbed it is now for all things food, wine, and drink?
We have a greater concentration of passionate people in five square blocks than probably anywhere else in the Atlanta area. We have a lot of small businesses here run by passionate people; there aren't a lot of big conglomerates that could come here and survive. We have been fueled by independent, mom-and-pop small businesses that want to keep it here in Decatur. We've all grown together and we all really support each other and share everything. It's a tight-knit community. Decatur can be hard to infiltrate, but it's a supportive group of people in this scene. When we moved to this new location [in 2011], we got bigger just as the whole food and beverage scene got bigger, and it's great that so many of the restaurants and bars have done well. It's interesting because we all do what we do slightly differently. You never walk into a restaurant or bar in Decatur and feel like it's similar to another restaurant that you just left.
Can you tell us a little about the new café the team is opening this year?
We're very excited about both Proof Bakeshop, our bakery opening next month on Dekalb Avenue, then, near the end of the fall, we'll be opening Bread & Butterfly Cafe, which will be really similar to a French-style bistro. It will be small, only 45 seats and mostly focused on wine, with a small list of spirits and a few beers. The wine list will be smaller and not change as much as here at Cakes, and it will be an entirely French wine list.
— Eater Atlanta contributor Dennis Attick