People open restaurants for many reasons, most of them delusional and foolhardy. Restaurants rarely make much money, they are exceptionally expensive to operate, and rely almost entirely on that most fickle of factors -- humans. While I'm not privy to their reasoning, the owners of SAGA seem to have opened in order to bring a taste of home to Atlanta -- their home that is, which is South Africa. But this is not an African restaurant; rather, it is a mix of modern Southern cuisine and a few South African dishes.
SAGA stands for South Africa Georgia, and the fusion is a little curious. Thankfully, their human element is in wonderful working order.
I never had the pleasure of eating at Toast when chef Drew Van Leuvan headed up the kitchen there, nor did I get a taste of anything he did during his brief stint at Spice. But I'm happy to finally have caught up with him at SAGA.
The menu seems to veer all over the place, from traditional South African stews and dried meats, to a decidedly Southern take on chicken livers, to a fine selection of pastas (one of Van Leuvan's specialties), and on to very modern New American cooking.
A lesser chef could absolutely not pull this off, and even under Van Leuvan the South African component seems forced. The "potjie" of the day (the aforementioned stew) is hearty and satisfying, but a little out of place alongside the chef's light hand with other dishes. A plate of South African charcuterie, despite being dressed to the nines in fancy garnish, is basically jerky. I have had this dish before in out-and-out African restaurants, and it made more sense on those home-style menus. There's no flaw in the desire to introduce South African dishes to Atlanta diners; there's just a slightly discordant feel to a menu that lists the street and snack foods of South Africa next to $36 filet mignon. My preference lies heavily with the dishes where the South African influence is subtle or unnoticeable.
That's because Van Leuvan's own cooking, unadorned by theme, can be a thing to behold. Those cornmeal-crusted chicken livers are rich and satisfying, with smoky bacon and apple cider. A porcini pie, probably a nod to the British pie influence in South African larders, is a perfect balance of rich, buttery crust and savory mushroom filling.
Van Leuvan is a man who loves his vinegar. On an early visit, the "compliments of the chef" pre-dinner taste was a trio of vinegar -- chips, foam and pickle -- and it was, um, vinegary. On subsequent visits, the amusée has been toned down and has included less cerebral and slightly friendlier selections such as roasted peppers with goat cheese on toast points. But the vinegar is a theme that keeps its place of honor on the menu, giving riotous personality to a luscious lamb cannelloni appetizer in the form of golden beet gelee, and providing the pickle backbone of one of the best dishes of the year: wild striped bass with pickle consommé. These are eccentric, slightly loopy dishes, but they also are focused and generous, and totally refreshing.
The other refreshing aspect here is service, which can be a little too omnipresent (the dining room has been slow on weeknights, and it sometimes feels like you are the only task a waiter has), but is usually gracious, knowledgeable and professional. In fact, the best South African element in the place is one of the waiters, a young man with the lovely lilting accent of that country, whose tableside tone is spot on. There's that human element again, exceeding expectations.
The space, which used to house Stanley's Grace, has been done up in rich reds and browns, but it somehow misses the mark. The bar, with its large-screen TVs, does not seem like the bar of a swank restaurant as much as it does a second-rate Midtown singles-scene hangout. The soundtrack I have encountered, of adult-contemporary, top-40 hits, does not help dispel this feel and really doesn't help in the dining room. Music is one of those things that never seems to matter until it is all wrong, and the pretty decor of SAGA would suffer less identity crisis if the African element came out of the speakers as well as the kitchen. Even unobtrusive jazz would be better than Keith Urban.
But despite the inconsistencies, the food at SAGA trumps all that. Van Leuvan is a chef whose talent is worthy of main-attraction status. The only disappointment here is that he is laboring under the South Africa gimmick. The South African elements on his menu are cute, but they don't hold a candle to the inventive, quirky and usually delicious dishes that Van Leuvan pulls off when he's left to his own devices.