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Chefs Angus Brown & Nhan Le: The Night Owl Eating Award 2014

Photo: Andrew Thomas Lee

Chefs Angus Brown and Nhan Le win The 2014 Night Owl Eating Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.

Even in the cities that never sleep, late-night dining has usually been more about settling than choosing. Fast food and greasy diners rarely satisfy on any level other than quantity (or as a soon-to-be-regretted hangover palliative). But change is afoot in Atlanta: Enter chefs Angus Brown and Nhan Le, who opened Octopus Bar in 2011 as an incidental, no-expectations side project (it's the graffiti-splayed covered patio of Le's existing Vietnamese pho joint, So Ba). What it has turned into is a seriously good restaurant that doesn't even start serving until 10:30 p.m.

The all-over-the-map menu of small plates is delightful: Paper-thin octopus carpaccio, delicately refreshing, is set off by spiky bits of fennel and celery and punctuated with briny ikura (salmon roe). The omnipresent salt-and-pepper shrimp reinforces the Vietnamese connection. It's perfect late-night fare, lightly flash-fried with popping flavors. Among the globally inspired food, there's a sumptuous take on a lobster roll, piled high with sweet lobster and enriched with a tomalley mayo that harks back to Brown's time spent in New England. It's a product of the duo's "cooking what we feel like eating" approach.

And what they feel like eating matches perfectly with the rapidly evolving food culture in cities like Atlanta, according to Atlanta Magazine's Osayi Endolyn: "The people who live in and frequent East Atlanta Village, especially during the late-night hours, are a diverse group. You have a lot of young and creative people, restaurant industry folks, finance guys who DJ on the weekends, pharmacists who go clubbing. The commonality is that these are people who care about good food—who is making it, where it's from, what the chef is trying to say."

The menu also includes family-style dishes. Whole sea bass smothered with ginger-lemongrass and a fermented black bean concoction briefly brought conversation to a halt while our party of four attacked it. The daeji bulgogi (spiced Korean pork) with an option of a half dozen oysters (hint: always get the oysters) is an open invitation for group eating. That dish captures the spirit of what Le and Brown intend to accomplish with their late-night bites. "We want to showcase our skill set and do what we do," says Le. "But at the end of the day, we love to see people sharing and dining with the freedom that we have in the kitchen."