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First Look: Ink & Elm

Emory Village's shocking, refined new addition is off to a promising start

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If you think fine dining is dead in our city, you need to check out Ink & Elm, which recently opened smack-dab in the middle of Emory Village. It pays homage to Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned 19th-century landscape architect whose ink drawings gave rise to Druid Hills, the elegant elm-lined neighborhood in which Emory is located.

Ink & Elm's locale is a total shock to many. The Village has long been a hangout for students, dispensing the usual academic diet of beer, coffee, tacos, and pizza. And fine dining is mainly a distant memory in our city. But Emory Village sits in one of Atlanta's wealthiest areas. The mean household income in Druid Hills is $238,500, according to higley1000.com. The crowd during my visits looked the part. Students were nowhere to be seen.

The owners, operating as HKN Restaurants, are Keith Osborne, Nick Chaivarlis, and T. Hunter Jefferson. They employed the architects at ai3 to create a brilliantly complex space. It is divided into a luxurious main dining area and a cozy tavern that serves mainly small plates at comparatively inexpensive prices. Between the two is a sleek cocktail lounge with an oyster bar and a selection of local charcuterie. It might remind you slightly of Grand Central Station.

HKN has hired Stephen Sharp as executive chef. He is a culinary thoroughbred with stints at Babette's, Atmosphere, Blue Ridge Grill, and French American Brasserie. I've had only two meals at the restaurant — one in the tavern with friends and one in the main dining room all by my lonesome. I liked the Southern-inspired food quite a bit, with a few reservations.

Sharp's dishes — all made with mainly local, seasonal ingredients — seem a bit complicated at times. I couldn't say no to the tavern's bruschetta with "local radish, crushed egg, fried oysters, and Chilean olive oil." The four oysters atop the other ingredients were absolutely perfect, losing none of their sweet plumpness to frying.

The bread, layered with the sliced radishes and chopped-up egg, is purely a foundation. You won't get an oyster in your mouth and savor the mild radishes at the same time unless you use a fork and knife. That would be a mess. Those radishes do echo the crispy coating of the oysters and the egg theoretically ramps up the creamy interior. But I found the egg totally nondescript texturally and taste-wise. It doesn't detract but it doesn't add much, either.

After wolfing down the bruschetta, I tried the cheeseburger. It was my only strong disappointment. The patty was super bland, as is most grass-fed beef in our city. To its credit, the restaurant grinds some fairly fatty cuts to make the burger juicier, according to our server. But strangely, the two burgers at my table were nonetheless dry and on the chewy side. Everyone seems to overcook grass-fed beef.

The restaurant adds some weird toppings and sides, but they don't crank up the flavor much. You get: Velveeta fondue, dilly pickle, arugula, potato wedges, and Worcestershire aioli. It sounds like a carnival of flavors, but Velveeta's not exactly known for wowing the mouth, even when it's serving a campy purpose.

My friends chose well with the St. Louis-style pork ribs smoked with pecan wood. The bourbon glaze was popsicle-lickable. The portion annoyed them. They never got enough. I have to agree, though, that making a main dish of the ribs is going to leave you hungry.

A few nights later I settled into one of the main dining room's oversized leather armchairs. The server brought a strange roll to the table, explaining that it was a Gruyère profiterole made by pastry chef Elodie Westover. I've never eaten a profiterole that wasn't filled with something sweet. This was empty, but arrived with some smoked trout salad to spread on the flaky pastry. Gone in a flash. As soon as I looked at the menu, I knew my starter would be the veal sweetbread. A euphemism mainly for the pancreas, sweetbreads have become quite popular with the nose-to-tail crowd in recent years. I've always loved them.

Sharp's are the best I've tasted in a very long time. They are sautéed in browned butter and mixed with lion's mane mushrooms. As my server pointed out, you can barely discern the two from one another until they reach the mouth. Both have that smooth, slightly al dente surface that gives way to gnocchi-like texture. Sharp puts them atop braised sweet potato greens. They're barely sweet but certainly not bitter. Incredible, but understand that the menu changes frequently, depending on what's available from local farmers, so a dish may disappear or its ingredients may change.

Now for the entrée with likeable multiple-personality disorder. It was a duo of lamb — a slice from the loin and a mildly piquant sausage patty. I can't possibly describe the interplay of ingredients, but here's a partial list of what's at play: maitake mushrooms, farro piccolo, a heavily reduced lamb jus, romesco sauce, dried dates, celery, and cumin salt. Understand that some of these ingredients are arranged around the plate. The pinkish romesco and the lamb jus are paint swipes for bites of the meat. There's a little too much going on for my taste, but, as with the bruschetta, it's easy to ignore what doesn't work because the essential ingredient is so damn good.

I tried one dessert — a banana split. What got me was the two Honeysuckle Gelato flavors of fig-thyme and Nutella-coconut. There were also lamentably unpleasant figs poached to mushiness in wine, peanuts, and caramel. Next time, I'll just order the remarkable gelato alone.

Osborne, who lives in the area, told me that neighbors have long complained that they have to drive to Decatur for a good restaurant meal. Really, the expense — I spent $61 for dinner without alcohol — isn't astronomical for fine dining. And Ink & Elm will certainly become a destination restaurant. Sharp's cooking is soulful and playful. When a chef commits himself to that, he's going to get a bit baroque now and then, but it's worth the risk. The theme, Frederick Olmsted's aesthetics, is brilliant and it must have been a blast for ai3 to play with another designer's work.

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