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Best of intentions

College Park's The Feed Store aims high but fumbles

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College Park's homey downtown area has become a renovator's dream and a vintage junkie's pilgrimage in recent years. Business names like Lunch on Main Street reek sweet nostalgia while others, such as the Brake Pad, refer directly to their buildings' former purposes. The Feed Store falls into the second category, though it's obvious the restaurant is also doing its damnedest to up the area's bling-bling factor.

Take, for example, the valet service. During my first visit, parking was self-service, a logical option for a restaurant whose adjacent lot couldn't be more convenient unless it were a drive-in. On a subsequent visit, a valet stood guard as we pulled in. My dining companion and I were puzzled. We didn't need our car professionally guided several feet to a space in a mostly empty lot.

Inside The Feed Store, diners can watch precariously close airplanes take off one after another through a series of high windows (the building is quite close one of Hartsfield's runways). It's a surreal experience that is pure theater. Tables are separated by corrugated plastic partitions, and they feel amazingly private in the open room. Oversized booths a step up from the dining room floor line one wall, providing a view of the action. The lighting is moody and elegant, and on weekend nights a piano player clinks out curious tunes like "It's a Small World."

It's hard to be unhappy in such a charming environment, but once we nestled into a booth, The Feed Store's clumsiness presented itself. It's an issue that plagues both service and food, undermining owner Celita Bullard, her business partner Joseph Owens and chef Michael Schorn's best intentions for what could be a good restaurant.

The problems are most obvious in the service, which was awkward on the first visit and just short of appalling on the second. The powers-that-be saw fit to hire people who seem to have never stepped foot in a restaurant before. When questioned about an entree, our first server replied, "Ummm, it's filling." The second server fared no better, telling us some dishes were "really OK, I guess."

This second fellow also smelled as if he'd bathed in gin, could not remember a single item ordered, picked his ears, and had hands so filthy we winced when accepting food from him. We were served wines we didn't order and were engaged in unsolicited chats concerning his personal life. Courses were paced like a race to the entree and then a slow dance before dessert.

Schorn's menu aims for an eclectic feel, but it instead comes off like a shopping list. Many dishes contain too many ingredients for the palate to handle. Some items, like the Serrano ham-wrapped shrimp, sound good but are ruined by clumsy execution. The shrimp, which had a gritty texture, arrived rock-hard and wrapped in shriveled, vinyl-textured ham. The combination created a gamey/fishy flavor that couldn't be tolerated past the first bite. Although calamari was crispy and tender, it was also beset with greasy Italian sausage-flavored chunks passed off as chorizo. The fried artichoke appetizer featured a riot of ingredients, but the garlic and basil-spiked white bean puree, tangy artichokes, crunchy Sardinian flatbread and olives came together harmoniously.

Old-timey entrees such as a leaden fried sirloin with gluey potatoes and quickly congealing gravy are offered alongside fusion items. A seared scallops number succeeded brilliantly. Its accompanying curry emulsion paired well with the delicate scallops, while the astringency of the wilted watercress cleansed the palate after bites of rich beet couscous. The wonderful steak frites excelled from a match-up of butter-tender Kobe hanger steak, arugula and slightly oversalted fries.

Unfortunately, the smoked double-cut pork chop was a scary knob of gristle. The chop sat atop a mess of ingredients: herbed spaetzle, oak mushrooms, English peas, grape tomatoes, Vidalia onion jus, caramelized onions, scallions, whole rosemary leaves, fried onions and bits of Serrano ham.

Schorn's talent is often obscured by his overwhelming compositions. Scaled-down items such as the Kobe steak and scallops prove his skills can shine. When his food doesn't try so hard, it's almost extraordinary.

The desserts we had were uniformly unappealing. The chocolate bread pudding was heavy and soggy, an experience redeemed only by the accompanying caramelized banana. An almost acceptable Frangelico apple crisp was sunk by rawhide-tough apple slices. Georgia peach cheesecake was creamy and satisfying yet sported deep fingerprints around its sides. The white chocolate lemon verbena créme brûlee would have been better off plain vanilla. The white chocolate lent the custard a slick, gooey texture and the lemon verbena was too strong.

The kitchen and front of the house are commendably enthusiastic, yet knowledge and experience are far outpaced by ambition. The Feed Store reaches for the sky, but will stumble until it hires better servers and the menu is simplified.

We left the restaurant to find our car stationed 10 paces from the door, next to the lot's exit. The poor valet guy gallantly offered to edge our car out for us, but since we were 20 inches from the street we took the keys and pulled out ourselves. As we drove away from the building, we burst into laughter. "You know," my friend said, summing up our experience. "I think they're trying too hard in all the wrong places."

cynthia.wong@creativeloafing.com

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