The old train depot emits a warm glow amid the cool autumn air. Inside, a raucous roar worthy of the trains that rumble by rises from the crowd of diners and imbibers. Vintage ceiling fans revolve above the room connected by a system of long belts that circulate back and forth. A rich wood bar that spans the length of the room is the center of attention. Brown glass vials of ingredients cover the countertop, absinthe fountains sit ready to drip chilled water over sugar cubes into glasses, and golden taps prepare to pour forth a foamy pint. Ornate pewter trays overloaded with oysters on ice look right at home beside the elegant damask wallpaper and deep, dark leather banquettes below mottled mirrors.
This is Kimball House. It feels like a scene out of "Boardwalk Empire" or Midnight in Paris, a slice of a bygone era when cocktails fueled conversation late into the night in grand surroundings. At any moment, I expect Nucky Thompson to walk in, light up a cigarette, and order a drink. Hipster throwback elegance is the vibe. It's evident in the classically inspired cocktail menu, tattooed servers wearing skinny jeans, and the restaurant's ridiculous weekday happy hour featuring 18 varieties of pristine oysters at half price. If Kimball House merely aimed to be the most awesome oyster and cocktail bar Atlanta has ever seen, I'd call it an incredible success. But the rest of the restaurant, most importantly the menu, is struggling to establish its identity.
Housed in the old Decatur train depot, Kimball House is the latest concept from the team behind Brick Store Pub and Leon's Full Service. The bar program is led by the talented Miles Macquarrie, and co-chefs Philip Meeker and Jeffrey Wall are in charge of the food. Interestingly, this is not the first time Meeker and Wall have worked together. The two met at Joël many moons ago before heading off to Holy Taco and La Fourchette, respectively.
The menu is split in thirds — a mix of seafood, charcuterie and more traditional meat dishes, plus some fairly elaborate vegetable sides. Flavor profiles teeter from Southern locavore to Thai to French and Provençal to Japanese. In the somewhat-Spanish camp, mussels escabèche, lightly pickled and served cold, paired perfectly with smoky bacon piled onto grilled toast. On the Thai side, grilled shrimp with coconut broth, squash, toasted cashews, chanterelles, and bitter arugula showed the kitchen's ability to intertwine exotic spices and local ingredients, even if it did seem a bit out of left field.
But if they're going for the flavors of Japan or Provence, I'd rather see them go with gusto. A piece of charred black cod with raw arugula and squash tempura came utterly unseasoned. Lobster fettuccine in a barigoule sauce with delicate fennel fronds sounded and looked intriguing, but the sauce amounted to little more than bland, creamy foam.
Many dishes seem to focus more on looks than flavor. The trio of beets, for example, was visually stunning with bold beet colors set against a stark white plate. The dish was accented with swirls of green herbs and dotted with pink and red striped cubes of gelled crème fraîche and beet juice. The cubes were merely eye candy and did little to enhance the earthy sweetness of the beets.
It appears that Kimball House's instant popularity also has created issues for the kitchen. I experienced long gaps in the delivery of dishes. Some arrived at temperatures clearly much cooler than what was intended. The servers are friendly despite the chaos, but the pressure shows. On weekends, I've had trouble getting even one of the three or four bartenders to look my way.
But with cocktails and oysters this good, I feel bad complaining at all. To be able to sit down at the convivial bar and order up a tray of oysters from faraway places like Willapa Bay, Washington, or Mashpee, Mass., is like a magical journey in space and time. Macquarrie's cocktails such as the signature Kimball House — a lightly sweet, floral take on a gin martini served with a help-yourself cup of olives and lemon peel — make the journey all the better. You can also turn to the Old World wine list (relatively brief but all offered by the glass) or choose one of the dozen well-chosen craft beers on draught such as the herbaceous Westbrook One Claw.
If you're in the mood to embrace your inner F. Scott Fitzgerald, order up a glass of Marc Hebrart Champagne and some Ossetra caviar. (What other bar in town has the bravado to serve not just one but five variations on classic caviar service?) Picture an artful composition of caviar atop a bowl of ice, brioche toast, and an array of garnishes laid out just so — crème fraîche, shallots, a mélange of herbs, and blini-like pomme macaire. You can pretend you're in an elegant train depot in 1920s Paris. One minute you're drinking Champagne in a frenetic crowd and the next you're out the door and into the quiet Southern air of Decatur.