BY ELIZABETH FRIEDLY / AJT //
Lit by the early morning sun reaching to its high raftered ceiling, The General Muir’s sparkling green-and-white tiled dining room is awaiting its grand opening. The name is painted on the large glass window, the tables and chairs are readied along the walls.
Now they just have to stomach another examination from the fire inspector.
With years of experience (and subsequent success) in the restaurant business, this isn’t new territory for either Jennifer Johnson or Todd Ginsberg. Owner of the West Egg Café and former head chef of Bocado, respectively, these two have already established an impressive presence in the Atlanta culinary scene.
The opening of their newest deli-inspired endeavor has already created quite the buzz. And yet, there’s no evading opening day jitters.
“I think there’s always a level of nervousness,” says Ginsberg, sitting a few doors down from the pandemonium of fresh paint and construction that is The General Muir’s finishing touches.
“The thing is, you take that nervousness and channel that into more productive things,” adds Johnson. “We realize we’re marrying two separate traditions. We’ve got the appetizing [element] for your fish, and the delicatessen has your meats.”
The General Muir will feature a full-service dining room in addition to a separate counter-service area focusing on the traditional imaginings of deli. This smaller, cozier option is set off to the side, an empty glass showcase to be supplied with hand-rolled kettle-boiled bagels, lox, sandwiches and more.
The General Muir will straddle both the customary, beloved aspects of deli food at the counter and more adventurous notions in the dining room with Ginsberg’s signature enthusiasm and flare. Everything is to be done in-house, down to the source of the coffee beans and the never-store-bought pastrami.
“It’s taking everything you’ve grown up with, that I grew up with in New Jersey and New York, just done really, really well,” says Ginsberg. But he is also quick to point out that the menu doesn’t stop there.
“I think if you put us in a box, then it’s not as good of a menu,” says Ginsberg before illustrating with an example. “I have a French background [and] I have a French technique, but I’m cooking in America and I have a Jewish background, so what does that make me? I don’t know, but that’s not modern Jewish food.
“I think it’s just a tribute to the food we grew up eating, more so than defining us. It’s a tribute.”
Regardless of the label, The General Muir staff’s exhilaration for their subject matter is readily apparent when a sample of one of the breads is brought in. Ginsberg cradles the sheet, holding it up to his face as the crowd gathered around him gasps, peering admiringly.
Such love for the cuisine – shared by Ginsberg and Johnson – stems from both meals at home and noshes from the local eatery. For example, a version of Ginsberg’s own childhood favorite will be featured at the deli counter: the “sloppy joe.”
It’s a loving homage to his father’s recipe of corn beef, a Thousand Island dressing and coleslaw.
“It’ll never be as good as Bubbie’s,” jokes Ginsberg, echoed by Johnson. “But that’s OK.”
The restaurant does in fact pay tribute to family and collective heritage, and in more ways than just food. Johnson named the restaurant after the ship that brought her mother and grandparents, Holocaust survivors, to New York following World War II.
“It’s very weighty [the name]. It had a certain gravitas, a certain weight to it,” says Johnson. “I hope this is something important we’re doing for ourselves and for the community.”
“Speaking of community,” Ginsberg chimes in, “They also brought all these recipes with them on these ships. It was their new beginning. Some of these [recipes] have been lost, and I think what we’re trying to bring back to this community is a sense of what they brought over 50 or 60 years ago.”
Over the years, Ginsberg and Johnson have watched as delis became scarcer and scarcer in the Atlanta area. Meanwhile, many of the delis that had managed to stick around, in the South or otherwise, seemed to have transformed into mega-diners with nearly unrecognizable menus.
“We’re trying to bring it back to center, to the core or our version of the core things you think of when you think ‘deli,’” says Johnson.
Formerly a lawyer, she decided several years ago on pursuing a second career in food. At first, Johnson questioned just how meaningful her move had been.
She wondered if she was doing something that made a difference in people’s lives and helped change the world in her own small way.
“But then I started seeing people in restaurants,” recalls Johnson, “and they’re having meetings and doing great things together, because you’ve fueled them in some way. A great meal or a great server can make something special, and I realized, ya know, I actually do feel like it is life changing to people.”
Ginsberg shares Johnson’s sentiments on the power of a truly good meal and its ability to take on a larger significance in people’s lives.
“It’s hard for me to remember when I’m cooking for people that they might carry this memory for 10 years, a few months or just a few days,” says Ginsberg. “It’s a very special feeling. There’s a lot of trust when people are eating in your restaurant.”
The General Muir staff is just as enthused about the community, citing their Emory Point location as their top choice in all of Atlanta. Ginsberg hopes the neighborhood will accept their classic bagels as well as their inventive three-course meals.
“We’re truly happy to be here,” says Ginsberg, “and for the community to embrace us for the next 25 to 30 years.”