The dirtiest street in Atlanta, Cheshire Bridge, is suffering an apocalyptic case of gentrification. Police are harassing sexual playgrounds like Tokyo Valentino and landlords are terminating leases faster than you can say “Jungle.” Meanwhile, more hideously designed condos and apartments are under construction, even as homeless gay kids fill up the shrinking archipelago of unseen, undeveloped spaces.
Whatever your feelings about this, you know that some good restaurants have long- thrived on Cheshire Bridge despite the horror — the horror! — of their sexy neighbors. The most recent to open is Bella’s Best Organic Gourmet (1830 Cheshire Bridge Rd., 404-872-6081, bellasbestcookies.com). It is barely noticeable, located in a yellow cottage next to Las Margaritas.
The new café takes its name from chef/co-owner Kim Purnell’s Aunt Bella, her family’s good-cooking matriarch. Purnell originally opened Bella’s with her husband Ray Grady on Bennett Street in 2006, following 20 years as a professor of rhetoric in the communications department of the University of Georgia. They moved operations to Cheshire Bridge late last year. “Bennett Street basically died,” Purnell told me, “and there’s obviously a lot going on here on Cheshire Bridge.”
I absolutely love the place. The interior features a main bakery area and three dining rooms. My favorite space is a sunny alcove full of houseplants and flowers with a table for two. During my two visits so far, the restaurant has been pretty deserted — catering is a significant part of the business — but I expect word to catch on. It’s open for breakfast (all day) and lunch only.
The deal here is organic, mainly vegetarian cuisine, plus some exquisite pastries. I know. There are still a lot of people who hear the word “vegetarian” and instantly equate it with lousy taste. They frequently think it’s unhealthy because it lacks a “solid” protein, like, say, a pig ear. Both beliefs, which I shared for a long time, are uninformed. Plant-based cuisine — especially when made with organic, local produce — can be full of complex, layered flavors. Moreover, it usually supplies adequate protein. If, like me, you grew up in gyms, you may have even been taught to consume a gram of protein per pound of body weight. That, I assure you, is crazy.
Bella’s does offer egg dishes, so that can help allay your protein anxieties. Dishes made with eggs, whether quiche or scrambled and layered with one of Purnell’s gigantic biscuits, are superb. If you’re accustomed to buying cheap eggs at Kroger, you’ll be shocked by the flavor. You can also supplement your protein with choices like tempeh and vegan bacon. I included the latter on my biscuit and was surprised by its flavor, although I honestly thought it was superfluous.
My big surprise, speaking of protein, was the veggie burger. Purnell makes hers with organic black-eyed peas, carrots, barley, brown rice, kale, onions and (very little) garlic. Served on flat bread, it is the best faux burger I’ve ever had — not because it impersonates beef, but because its flavors are so clear and its texture is al dente. There’s also a compelling portabella sandwich and a grilled-cheese. The menu features complex soups and salads, and everything from pancakes and French toast to lasagna and hummus.
But what really sold me on Bella’s is the ginger cookie. I grew up eating ginger snaps and have spent my life hunting good ones. Bella’s is the best I’ve had in memory — even better than the addictive little ones at Trader Joe’s. What makes it so good? It actually has enough ginger in it to sting the back of the throat a bit. It’s also crisp on the first bite and then turns chewy. I swear I could eat them all day long. Among many other sweets, Purnell also bakes a Polish pastry her Aunt Bella loved — the strucia. I’ve yet to try one — that would mean skipping a ginger cookie — but the version studded with figs will eventually get in my mouth.