It's been six years since the masterful chef Sotohiro Kosugi left Atlanta and seven since we lost the visionary Guenter Seeger. The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead closed in 2009, and Joël followed suit in 2010. The gradual decline of fine dining in Atlanta even claimed a class of well-loved and well-remembered upscale leaners like Shaun's, Repast, and Dynamic Dish.
While the city's culinary community lamented the loss of these great chefs and restaurants, the ones who remained continued to adapt and evolve. Soon, a new, more casual fine-dining model emerged as restaurants like Empire State South, Octopus Bar, and the Lawrence bridged the gap from old to new. With a focus on well-sourced chef food (offal, housemade charcuterie, craft cocktails) these innovative hybrids — often driven by the talented cooks who trained under those master chefs of yesteryear — are what dominate conversation today.
Drew Van Leuvan is one of those chefs who, by Atlanta standards, came up in the old school. He worked under some of the city's most respected chefs: Seeger (Seeger's) and Antunes (Joël), Michael Tuohy (Woodfire Grill) and Tom Catherall (Here to Serve Restaurants). In the mid-2000s he helmed the kitchens at Toast, Spice, and SAGA, and even ran his own handmade pasta company before joining Concentrics Restaurants Group. He eventually landed at One Midtown Kitchen. In early 2012, the journeyman chef left One to focus on his solo venture, Seven Lamps, which opened in mid-December.
Seven Lamps is tucked into a corner of the Shops Around Lenox, a strip of mostly high-end boutiques across the street from Lenox Square mall. Upon entering, you find yourself in the center of Seven Lamps' cozy, triangle-shaped dining room. Natural wood, dark metal, and stone accent the space in that familiar, industrial rustic way. To the left, five (not seven) repurposed desk lamps are mounted on a red brick wall. To the right, a wooden bar, with high-backed stools on either side, sits in front of a recessed, well-stocked booze cubby where all of the drinks are made. Straight ahead, a wall of shelves packed with wine and mason jars full of pickled things gives way to the open kitchen.
In simple terms, Seven Lamps resembles Holeman & Finch. The menu reads like Van Leuvan's autobiography, filled with tricks he's picked up along the way. Here you'll find plenty of familiar ingredients coaxed into unexpected pairings, and a menu geared toward grazing and sharing. Dishes are organized by small plates, pastas, oysters (usually two or three varieties on the half shell), savouries (mostly simple, salty bar-type snacks), a section of local and housemade charcuterie (by the name of salted, cured, and whipped), artisan cheese, and a modest selection of entrées.
An appetizer of lobster ramen broth had no lobster meat, but it was full of delicious roasted pork, cubed butternut squash, and an egg with a creamy, translucent yolk laced the deeply ocean-flavored stock. Succulent pinwheels of smoky, wood-grilled kale came wrapped in savory crêpes and were served beneath a gratin of creamy Gruyère. But my most memorable bite at Seven Lamps — and in recent memory — was Van Leuvan's playful mortadella mousse. Pistachio "macaroons" are filled with a silky mortadella mousse. The airy domes lend a sweet spice reminiscent of gingerbread. A dab of pickled mustard seeds (rehydrated with Bourbon I'm told) complete the enchanting riff on a bologna sandwich.
There are times when Van Leuvan's quirks are questionable. A curious starter of pecorino cheese baked directly onto a cedar plank beneath a tousle of pickled pearl onions and shiitake mushrooms would have been easier to maneuver with a razor blade or, better yet, a sturdy grill scraper to peel the cheese from the board.
Homemade pastas are surprisingly hit-or-miss. Springy, seared gnocchi bursts with honest potato flavor piqued by funky Gorgonzola crumbles and sweet roasted pear. Lightly sauced tagliatelle was cooked perfectly and tossed with plump Sapelo Island clams, smoky andouille and sofrito, a mix of sauteéd peppers, onions, garlic, and herbs. For all its components, the dish was surprisingly one-note. Tasty, cheese-filled agnolotti tossed in a slick tomato sauce reminded me of Chef Boyardee ravioli, but not in a bad way. But then tortellini with braised chestnut, mascarpone, and a garnish of apple leather (remember those natural fruit roll up things?) was just plain too sweet.
Cocktails by "head mixtress" and bar manager Arianne Fielder are divided into nifty categories such as Beer-Tails and Classically Inspired. Drinks labeled Effervescent are mixed in a carbonated cocktail shaker (think drive-thru bank tube) and fizzed tableside. Fizzy Lifting Drink (rum aged in sherry barrels, lime, Szechuan and black peppercorn syrup, plus carbonation) and the Snow White (St. George Terroir Gin, Berentzen Apple, Hitachino White Ale, Savannah Bee Co. honey, and lemon) are bright and refreshing, if a bit light for the season. The bar staff may still need some training to pull off Fielder's recipes, though, which require a delicate hand with sweetness. On a busy night, expect drink times to soar until the crew has a chance to find their bearings. The Roger Williams Manhattan made with Templeton Rye, Dolin Dry, cranberry syrup, and Bittercube Orange Bitters was tart and bitter on a night Fielder was on duty, but a cranberry cocktail catastrophe in her absence.
With the glitz and glam of old-school fine dining relegated to Atlanta's rearview, upscale, chef-driven restaurant bars are the new stage for culinary progress. But Seven Lamps isn't so much new as it is fresh: a fresh look for Atlanta, a fresh start for Van Leuvan. It's an easy place to sip and taste and enjoy some good company, because at Seven Lamps you're in seasoned, capable hands.This post has been updated from its original version