Alon Balshan dreamt of bringing his vision of Parisian pastry and homemade breads to a dining market concept in 1992, when Atlanta was ripe for clean Mediterranean style food. With a “light” $48,000, he opened the Alon’s Morningside location, followed in 2008 by the expansive Perimeter destination. “I knew I had an immediate hit when I saw the same ladies come back three times in 24 hours. Fast forward 25 years, almost everything you see here is homemade, even the marmalade, … probably more so than any other market,” Balshan said.
“In Israel I learned about European pastries in the coffee shops of Holocaust survivors. I have traveled the great markets of the world to bring artisan-quality, reasonable food to Atlanta. What we have here is a full ‘experience.’”
His culinary knowledge and passion are manifested in his execution of so many “made from scratch” gourmet items. Every salad dressing, soup, spread, bread, pizza, and dessert is guarded under his watchful eyes. Balshan admits to “breathing down employees’ necks” to assure that every recipe is followed and served properly.
Jaffe: How would you describe the “vibe” at Alon’s Perimeter versus Morningside?
Balshan: Morningside is a tiny neighborhood café and market with warm brick decor. Our customers there are very loyal, many foodies.
Here at Perimeter we have much more space (5,000 sq. ft) and see a lot of businesspeople throughout the week. It’s a “happening” and complete experience: the lighting, the warm ochre terra cotta walls, …. wafting aromas.
Jaffe: You grew up in Ashdod, Israel. How did your home life influence your art?
Balshan: My Egyptian mother was always cooking. Her best dish was molokeya: beef, bones, garlic, coriander, cumin, chopped greens similar to mint leaves, over rice. She put turmeric in everything to add color. Now we know how it is touted as an anti-inflammatory.
I served in the IDF and went to culinary school in Herzliya. My parents wanted me to be a doctor or violinist (laughing). I came to Atlanta in 1986 and worked for Engelman’s Bakery. They were very supportive and helped with my green card. I looked around Atlanta and saw an opening in the market for the quality food experience that Alon’s provides.
Jaffe: The word “artisan” is used a great deal. What makes your pizza “artisan”?
Balshan: “Artisan” means top quality and made with great care. Before I added pizza to the menu here four years ago, I went to Italy to study the ovens, dough, the flatbreads … every detail. We make our own sourdough crust in-house (takes two days). I serve a juicy thin pizza that’s almost gooey in the center, but blistered around the edges. It’s like eating pasta.
My theory is that pita and pizza are interconnected as Italy was once ruled by Arabs. A pizza made in Jaffa will be different than one made in Milan. The bigger the loaf, the cooler the oven. We heat for only 90 seconds!
Jaffe: Do you do anything special for Jewish holidays?
Balshan: We have year-round holiday menus (for take out). Our Rosh Hashanah menu features chicken soup, matzah balls, tzimmes, round challah (even honey wheat), kale salad with miso dressing, hand-chopped chicken liver, brisket cooked with red wine, apple sponge cake, strudel, babka, dozens more items.
Our “Shana Tova” gift basket is the perfect hostess gift. We have a terrific Break the Fast menu.
Note that we are not certified as kosher; but I serve no pork products. Even my sausage is made from lamb.
Jaffe: How do you accommodate dietary requests?
Balshan: I am gradually rolling out gluten-free items like bostock French pastry, a brioche with almond cream. Next, we will work on sandwiches. We start with an idea, but figuring it out and executing it to perfection is the challenge.
Clean food is my signature … almost everything you see here is fresh with natural coloring. There may be two cans in the whole kitchen – coconut milk and crushed tomatoes.
Jaffe: Where do you see Alon’s in the next few years?
Balshan: Our business model also includes wholesaling baked goods to over 60 restaurants, and desserts like macaroons to Whole Foods.
We cater small and middle-sized events: b’nai mitzvot, weddings (under 200), corporate spreads, Emory events, house parties.
I am opening a 20,000-sqare-foot facility on Peachtree Industrial. I have thought of every detail in efficiency and cleanliness like epoxy flooring. Other than that, I am very impulsive and do not like long-term planning. Here’s what I’m looking forward to: every Friday at 3 p.m., my Israeli buddies come here for my hummus. That’s THE BEST compliment!
Balshan prepared samples for our visit. Here are the items my companion, a local Mediterranean chef, and I went crazy over:
- Cold peach pistachio soup is a unique and fragrant summer dish.
- Tomato basil soup is light on the cream and very basil-forward.
- Spicy tofu squares with kickin’ red and sweet chili sauce give tofu a whole new meaning.
- Marinated red beets are lightly pickled, and tossed with garlic, toasted walnuts and goat cheese.
- Asian BBQ salmon sandwich piled up with cucumber, black sesame seeds and sprouts.
- Four cheese pizza with gorgonzola and fennel shavings.
- Named for Balshan’s aunt, Louise Chocolate Cake is chocolate on chocolate with Valhrona base.
- French style macarons with black currant filling was over the top.
- Hazelnut milk chocolate torte with cookie crust and rice crispy crunch.