"Just about every night in here is like spring break in Panama City," Hector Santiago, consulting chef at the new Big Sky Buckhead told me, laughing, during a recent lunch.
How right he was. When I dined at the Buckhead spot on a Friday night with five friends it was packed with former frat dudes and sorority chicks partying at high decibel. It's a great place to practice your American Sign Language and lip-reading.
Big Sky takes its name from the popular ski-resort town in Montana. Built and owned by the Cains Hill Group, it's squeezed into a piece of land formerly occupied by a tiny office building. It has lodge-like décor with wood paneling, one taxidermied deer head, and views from two large upstairs balconies. There's also a big patio downstairs.
Each level has an elliptical-shaped marble bar in the middle of the room, stacked on stone foundations. There are few if any tables upstairs and that points to the instantly obvious: This is not really a restaurant. It's a bar that serves food. As such, while packed at night, it's almost empty at lunchtime. (I haven't tried weekend brunch.)
And how is the food? After one dinner and two lunches over the course of a month, I've found it relentlessly bland. That doesn't mean there aren't some great flavors, but, generally, if you're looking for a party in your mouth, check out the babes and bros at the bar, not the menu.
How is this possible? Santiago, a "Top Chef" contestant, is among my favorite chefs in town. For 12 years, the Puerto Rico native and his wife Leslie operated Pura Vida in Poncey-Highland. His brilliant menu of intercultural tapas blended unexpected flavors with an effect like a Rorschach for the palate: a flood of associations with depth, mystery, and just the right amount of insanity. Ditto for his short-lived sandwich shop, Super Pan, and his burrito stand, El Burro Pollo.
While Santiago isn't actually cooking at Big Sky, his former right-hand man Pedro Matos is. He's a gifted chef himself, having gone to work at Cakes and Ale after Pura Vida closed. So talent abounds.
The lunch and dinner menus are nearly identical, headed by usual snacks like french fries, chips and salsa, guacamole, a romaine salad, and chicken wings spiked with Sriracha. There are few provocative ingredients, although the guac is zapped with wasabi, ginger, and furikake.
Flip the menu and you'll likely get confused. The deal is meat, fried or roasted with a variety of seasonings, served over a bowl of salad greens or rice and black beans with garnishes. If you don't want a bowl, you can order the meats on Santiago's "legendary coconut buns" — steamed bread that evokes dim sum buns. Finally, there's a burger and a smoked-turkey sandwich.
I've tried nearly all the meats and the pork belly has been my favorite — both the flash-fried slices on the slider and the slow-cooked chunks over rice and beans. Both come dressed with habanero-tamarind sauce, sambal and a cabbage-cilantro slaw. Sounds groovy. But there was barely a hint of the burn you'd expect from habaneros and sambal. Tasty, yes. Spicy, no.
You know how those Buckhead moms love to pick up a pile of chicken fingers when they head home from Little League with the kids? Santiago and Matos fry the tenders in a ginger batter and very lightly spread the slider bun with the wasabi-avocado guac. Then they heap on some "Thai basil jicama slaw." Again, barely a hint of heat amid the crunch and creaminess.
The burger is a gigantic, juicy thing topped with bacon and the usual lettuce, tomato, and bland cheese. A barely noticeable onion-chipotle spread covers the bun. To me, the burger tasted like a sausage patty. I asked Santiago about it and he said the meat is seasoned with considerable nutmeg. So mine are the whiny tastebuds in this case.
One of the most exemplary moments of the restaurant's dilemma occurred when I ordered fries during one lunch. These addictive double-fried babies are scattered with sea salt. The server brought them to the table with two containers of ketchup. One, she explained, was the plain stuff. The other was spiked with chipotle.
"People eating Hector Santiago's food can't even handle spicy ketchup?" I blurted.
"Uh-huh, yes," she said. "We even had to change the Sriracha wings."
Well, the good news is that Santiago is still planning to open a burrito joint and a restaurant where he can feature the kind of food he prepared at Pura Vida. "We had to close because they raised the rent so high," he explained, adding that the complexity of his dishes required spending more than usual on ingredients. "Hopefully, we can make it work. I love working at Abattoir, but I can't really do Latin food there, either."
Until he opens the new ventures, Pura Vida's food largely remains a ghostly memory.