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First Look: Latitude

Global cuisine at Micah Willix's new Phipps Plaza restaurant

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Of all the places in Atlanta to experience international culture, I suppose Phipps Plaza is one. Italian luggage, Malaysian footwear, Danish electronics: at least the fruits of global capitalism are available for the taking, if not so much the culture. Perhaps that was part of the thinking that landed chef Micah Willix's new globally-minded restaurant, Latitude, in a mall? The location is especially convenient if you're the sort of person who needs to pick up a Gucci handbag before dinner (they're right across the hall), but otherwise is a bit wanting for charm. When I asked a date to come check out what I told her was a new place at Phipps, she snapped back, "The mall? What are you trying to take me to? Panda Express?" For the record, Phipps is not the sort of place that has a Panda Express.

Once you're inside the restaurant, though, you can almost forget the fluorescent shop glow that's just outside the doors. The space doesn't feel especially glamorous, but the rounded, stainless bar, dim hanging lights, and a slightly dated mix of Pitchfork-approved electronic music set a fine mood. It's still easy to get a table, even on the Friday night when we walked in, though it's possible it won't be that way for long.

Willix, who earned his chops as executive chef of Midtown's deservedly beloved upscale-Mediterranean joint Ecco, has put together a menu that should, and probably will, attract the crowds that have thronged to Ecco for the past five years. The focus here is small plates, generously portioned for sharing. "Globally-inspired" may sound a bit more ambitious than the current menu actually is, hewing close to French and Italian influences with occasional Asian or Latin touches. There is Pacific redfish that comes served with quinoa and kuri squash, beef kushiyaki served with cabbage and coconut, tuna ceviche with charred avocado, and a couple of other outliers that expand a menu that is otherwise distinctly European.

No matter the concept — nearly everything that came to our table was executed with the sort of able-handed ease of a well-oiled and experienced kitchen. The beef tartare, served here without the traditional egg yolk atop, comes with fresh aioli spread on crostino. It's clever substitution, putting a slight twist on the dish without losing the creamy presence of raw egg. The house-made sausages, delicately moist without being too fatty, have a palpable kick of heat that plays excellently with the cherries that accompany it. A less experienced kitchen might overwhelm the heat or sweetness, but the dish nails an eloquent balance of both.

It's nice to see that the dishes here aren't condescending, either. The warm bitter green salad is actually, legitimately bitter, rather than just accented by a bitter note or two. The crispy eggplant, while excellently crispy, was overwhelmed by a particularly sweet tomato conserva. It's certainly odd and interesting. It might even have been palatable had there been less sauce, but served as it was the combination just didn't work. The pan-fried pork chop, on the other hand, paired perfectly a tomato oregano sauce and happened to be one of the most tender I've had in recent memory.

Despite their current fever-pitch popularity in Atlanta, there isn't a cocktail list at Latitude, though we were told they're working on one. It seems like that may be a conscious decision to put more emphasis on the wine list, which certainly deserves the attention. While not particularly long, it includes a number of unexpected choices and a relatively wide price range that makes it somewhat accessible.

Of course, that sort of adventurous list works best if the server happens to know something about it, which, unfortunately, our server did not. After a few questions that were met with a response akin to a deer in headlights, followed by a slight comedy of errors, we gave up trying to find out anything and just took a gamble on a bottle of German pinot noir. It ended up being fantastic. Hopefully by the time they get a cocktail program up and running, they'll also up the ante on wine service.

There's something very pleasant about Latitude's disinterest in playing up the trends that have been dominating Atlanta lately. The emphasis here is good wine and mostly European cooking, made fresh by Willix's subtle playing with international influence. There are even a few well-considered nods to Southern cooking, without a hint of the cloying faux-Americana Farmer Joe act. It'll be interesting to see if Willix ventures into more adventurous territory with the menu in the future, but even if he stays right in this comfort zone, it's safe to say he's found a nice place in the world.

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