I am sitting on a black leather chair in the bar area just inside the entrance of Aria (490 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-7673). I am dying of the heat, having decided to dress in a black double-breasted blazer. It is rather dark and the bartender, dressed in black with a crown of black hair, is offering me libations.
Every now and then the door opens and two beautiful, bubbly creatures run toward the door and sweep back a metal curtain that looks like the chain-mail entrance to a dominatrix's lair. The new arrivals are greeted and hurried off to their tables. More often than not, they appear to be regulars. To shake off the eerie bordello feeling, I wander toward the whitewashed, big-windowed main dining room where I behold a ceiling light fixture that looks like an LSD-inspired sex fantasy from a Jules Verne tale.
What the hell has the Johnson Studio wrought this time? I rush back to my little leather chair.
Whoosh. The curtain parts again and my new colleague Bill Addison rushes through. I should say at the outset that Aria became Bill's favorite restaurant before he started writing reviews for CL. So, he's well-known here, does a lot of air-kissing with the staff and, in the absence of any pretense of anonymity, my experience can't be called really objective. But he was anxious to share the experience of his favorite restaurant and, having not visited before, I was happy to join him.
Chef and co-owner of Aria is Jerry Klaskala, who is certainly one of our city's most creative experimenters with so-called New American cuisine. He became well-known at the Buckhead Diner and later at Canoe, of which he is also a co-owner, as he is of Fishbone, our city's best seafood restaurant.
Aria is the third incarnation of the old Hedgerose Heights Inn, originally owned by the late Heinz Schwab, who came to Atlanta in the late '70s to run the kitchen of Nikolai's Roof at the downtown Hilton and was among a handful of chefs who pushed the city's culinary life out of the dark ages. In short, Klaskala and the Aria location itself are pivotal in Atlanta's fine dining history.
I didn't taste a dish at Aria that I wouldn't recommend. In fact, my appetizer keeps me up nights like the memory of semi-public sex. I review each detail and am rather surprised I didn't get into trouble -- like being arrested for an excess of cholesterol consumption. Imagine chunks of pink sweet lobster, braised in butter and sunk in a glass of truffled creamed potatoes topped by a thin layer of broccoli puree ($17). Bill's starter was just as erotic: a slab of Hudson Valley foie gras sauteed and served with vanilla-roasted ruby plums and arugula ($18).
Are you getting the picture? Every dish is an aria. There's a main theme, like the foie gras or lobster, with a complex accompaniment that mainly avoids the baroque. It's easy enough to say most contemporary cuisine attempts this, but the fact is that most falls short in the details. I'm particularly impressed with Klaskala's use of sweet notes, like the vanilla-roasted plums. Time and again I eat dishes with fruit that I find obnoxious because of the use of inferior over-cooked fruit to which far too much sugar has been added. The main ingredient is inevitably overwhelmed.
Here, fruit -- like the plums or the Georgia peaches in Bill's dish of pan-roasted duck breast with a confited leg ($23) -- retain all their integrity and are brought into luscious, juicy bloom by slow roasting. (A lemon couscous took any edge off the peaches.) Vegetables, all fresh and seasonal, are similarly treated. Thus my scallops ($24) -- huge, seared -- were served over butter beans as fresh and tasty as the ones my Aunt Nancy used to cook in Darlington on summer afternoons. White Georgia shrimp and crumbled Applewood bacon were added to the butter beans.
Kathryn King's desserts here are legendary and before sampling three of them, we ordered the tasting of four artisan cheeses ($9) from Star Provisions -- mainly because we noticed that Epoisses was among them. You may remember when it was repeatedly called "deadly Epoisses" in the newspapers a few years ago because several people were poisoned by it. Its importation was then forbidden.
Back at that time, I would smuggle it home in my suitcase from Paris in vacuum-packed bags. Soft, almost liquid, left out to ripen, the stuff's odor would permeate every square inch of the house. Bill and I tore into it, attempting to psych one another out for the next bite. He tormented me about my age. I tried to guess his weight.
Next, three desserts. The best by far was the toasted pound cake and peach ice cream with vanilla-roasted peaches ($8). I was astonished, watching Bill's dexterity with the thumb of the same hand with which he held his spoon. The thumb raked and kicked crumbs and fruit into the spoon which flew to his mouth and back before I could get my own spoon to the plate. Then he turned his attention to a remarkable little blueberry tart with orange ice cream ($7), leaving for me the less interesting Valhrona chocolate cream pie ($8). "I never order that," he said, moving the plate closer to me.
In the parking lot afterward, dabbing ice cream that had flown from Bill's fork to my shirt, I told him, earnestly, that my meal at Aria was among the best I'd had in a year. If you have not visited this remarkable restaurant, which demonstrates that American cooking can be exciting without weirdness, you need to pass through its chain-mail curtain soon.
Here and there
Six Feet Under, a new seafood restaurant opposite Oakland Cemetery on Memorial Drive, has opened in Grant Park. I'll be reviewing the restaurant, opened by the Heaping Bowl & Brew folks, next week.
I received quite a lot of feedback to my comments last week about Ru San's on Piedmont. Nearly everyone concurred with my extreme distaste for the place, but I received this kinder note from Stefan Reinhardt:
"I laughed my ass off at your review of the Ru San's on Piedmont. I had dinner with some friends nearly two years ago and none of us have been back since. Our reactions to the food ranged from bored to mildly sickened to downright f-ing mortified. Not to mention that the service sucked from the get-go.
"As an occasional patron of the branch on Windy Hill, [...] I do suggest you give Ru San's another shot by checking out their Windy Hill shop. Go in there with $9 and an appetite, hit the lunch buffet, go heavy on the wasabi and the ginger, and then, perhaps, if you're hungry enough, the food won't taste so bland. Oh, yeah -- and the miso is much better up there, too."
My friend Van and I had a spectacular meal of Korean barbecue at Hae Woon Dae, 5805 Buford Highway, last week. We were compelled to sit on the floor at a low table and the server treated me rather like an invalid.
"I meditate! I'm used to sitting this way," I kept protesting. "Oh, very big man to sit and eat lots of food in such a way," she said. Geez. How do you say "Whatever!" in Korean?
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.