By Ann Cipperly
As a train whistle pierces through the cool evening air, many diners turn to watch the train pass on the tracks just a few feet away from The Depot restaurant in Auburn. The kitchen is busy with Chef Scott Simpson placing the night’s fresh catch on a custom wood-fired grill, and a craft Blue Collar Mule being mixed at the bar.
The restored Depot is the third building to occupy this site. The first was constructed in 1847. During the Civil War, a series of attacks in 1864 by Rousseau’s Raiders destroyed the tracks, preventing the transportation of military supply during the siege of Atlanta.
In 1870 the second depot was built and burned after a powerful lighting strike in 1904. That same year, a 21-year-old architecture student designed the third and current depot in a Victorian style. Thick brick walls and a bell-cast hipped roof offered some protection from another fiery fate.
Many Auburn memories occurred at this site with the faces of war, students arriving to attend API and families dressed in their finest to attend football games. The last passenger train pulled into the Depot Jan. 7, 1970.
While the depot was recognized as a local treasure and a link to Auburn’s past, it began to deteriorate, as it awaited its destiny.
In the spring of 2014 Jana and Matthew Poirier, owners of The Hound, were looking at locations for another restaurant when they met the depot owner, who had removed the gas station on the corner.
The Poiriers partnered with co-owners Richard Tonasello to serve as general manager and Executive Chef Scott Simpson to head the kitchen. Construction to restore the depot began in the middle of April 2015 and was completed in September.
The original building was restored, including the black and white floor tiles, while the 200-year-old heartwood pine train platform boards were repurposed for the chef’s table and bar built by Jana’s father.
“We wanted to keep the bones intact as much as possible, while still allowing for adequate flow of operations,” Matthew says. “Jana was the creative force for the layout, colors and lighting.”
Jana’s vision for the restoration was to reflect the look and feel of the depot as it was in 1904. “We’ve taken several design elements from late 19th Century style such as steel, iron, and brass and gas-inspired lighting,” Jana says. “The idea was to keep it clean and simple, highlighting the beauty of the building and elements from mid 1800s to early 1900s, when the depot was the hub of Auburn.”
The result is a stunning restaurant with ambiance reminiscent of the golden era of train travel with tucked leather booths for cozy seating and a dazzling crystal chandelier in the main dining room.
Tonasello focuses on the front of the house and works with the bar manager to create craft cocktails, including prohibition-era combinations. Wine is available by the bottle and glass.
Before taking the helm at The Depot, Simpson worked with the Capella Hotel Group, including the AU Hotel. “As chef, I have had the unique privilege to open international luxury properties around the world’s coastal regions, bringing global experience and influences on my cooking.
Simpson has assembled an impressive menu, creating a gulf-coastal brasserie. Along with a seasonal menu, a daily selection of fresh seafood and oysters is also presented.
“Being a fresh seafood restaurant, the daily menu changes based on availability,” Simpson says. “By using a variety of suppliers we are able to get a variety of fresh seafood every day. They are getting us seafood 24 hours out of the ocean.” He also works with local farmers for fresh vegetables.
The restaurant is the first in the state to cook on a custom wood-fire “Asador” with much of the food cooked over an open flame or an Italian wood-burning oven. The chef uses a mixture of oak, hickory and pecan wood with mesquite to provide intense flavor.
After looking over the menu, we were excited to try the chef’s creations.
From the small plates menu our table savored immensely flavorful grilled Gulf oysters Rockefeller prepared with creamed spinach and topped with a Parmesan crust as well as top notch steamed mussels from Icy Blue Farms in a robust ginger curry butter, accompanied with toasted sourdough bread.
Other stellar small plates were gumbo with Cajun style Andouille, crawfish and Gulf shrimp in a rich roux over Poblano rice and a creamy New England clam chowder with chunks of seafood, potatoes and bacon.
The baked goat cheese salad was a standout with pecan-crusted Stone Hollow Goat Cheese and local lettuce tossed with a light herb garden vinaigrette, garnished with edible flowers.
On the regular seafood menu, the blue crab cakes prepared with almost no breading rest on grilled zucchini and finished with zesty red pepper coulis were among the best we ever tried. The wood fired lobster on the half shell with a Bayou dipping sauce and lemon risotto also received hearty thumbs-up.
An interesting presentation of flash fried cobia wings on buffalo beurre blanc produced a meltingly tender texture.
Also at our table, succulent, marinated double-thick American Strauss Farms lamb chops were flawless with rosemary chimichurri served on sweet potato hash.
From the daily catch menu, our table sampled the sesame grilled Gulf shark and shrimp combination with star fruit, pineapple and mango salsa.
Although it appeared no one at the table could take another bite, that changed quickly, as the desserts looked irresistible. It is difficult to pick a favorite from sublime mocha beignets filled with dark chocolate topped with espresso crème anglaise, silky honey buttermilk panna cotta with blood orange sauce and warm apple cobbler topped with crumbled lemon biscuits, accompanied with vanilla gelato.
After a delightful evening, everyone at the table agreed that with stunning ambience and Simpson in the kitchen, the Depot has received new life with a first class restaurant.
The Depot restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. For further information go to www.allaboardauburn.com or call 334.521.5177.