"Which one is the chef?" asks my friend in hushed tones.
"The one who looks like a grown-up version of Harry Potter," I whisper back. "The one who's everywhere at once."
Shaun Doty does indeed seem to have the wizardly ability to disappear and reappear at will. He inspects outgoing dishes in the open kitchen one instant, then slices prosciutto on a candy-apple-red machine poised near the bar a nanosecond later, then greets newly seated customers or shakes hands with regulars. Anyone positioned in a prime people-watching seat can easily spy the energetic ringleader of the fledgling MidCity Cuisine.
Doty's previous baby was Mumbo Jumbo, the cavernous, gothic venture that struggled with its nebulous downtown location. When issues around Mumbo's lease arose earlier this year, Doty read the writing on the kitchen wall. He chose a new base of operation in the former Angelo & Maxie's steakhouse, located in an office building up the street from the Woodruff Arts Center. With the move comes an invigorated new attitude that makes MidCity Cuisine the most in-tune and promising restaurant to open thus far this year.
This place looks fresh. A breezy bar encased in wry glass polka dots anchors the open room, which draws you in with a retro mingling of dark wooden floors and light walls. A banquette with chocolate leathery seats is lined with stripes the colors of which you're likely to see thrown together in one of Sarah Jessica Parker's get-ups on "Sex and the City." I'm still pondering the bondage symbolism in the painting of the loaf of bread with a belt around it.
Just as Doty has traded the dark, rathskeller space of Mumbo Jumbo for brighter, more light-hearted digs, his menu (albeit a tad too diverse) often reflects a more easy-going simplicity. By tinkering less with the food, he allows the innate finesse of sterling ingredients to shine. And y'all, the prices are right in step with the times -- you will not leave this restaurant with your wallet feeling plundered.
It would be lovely on a balmy evening to make a meal completely out of the hors d'oeuvres (smart, small plates) and appetizers (a bit more substantial). Fried risotto balls tinted with saffron, honestly crisp calamari tossed with thin strips of fried okra, al dente fava beans with tiny cubes of pecorino and rounds of scarlet watermelon showered with Sweet Grass Dairy cheese and shards of basil are each worth clashing forks over with tablemates.
Several standards from Doty's Mumbo Jumbo repertoire reincarnate at MidCity. Translucent slices of the aforementioned prosciutto, paired lucidly with ripe cantaloupe, are a quiet, naked revelation. Sardinian flatbread, perfumed with rosemary and argan oil, is best when used as a foil to scoop up chunky eggplant caponata. Spanish gazpacho with Dijon, unfortunately, doesn't have enough oomph. When I swirl the frozen creamy Dijon dollop into the soup, I want my palate to zing with that distinctive mustardy tang.
The kitchen has a disarming way with pasta. I am all about the lasagna Bolognese, which is remarkably summery with its herbed, gossamer noodles and the true tomato taste of its meat sauce. Prepare for leftovers: This thing comes out in a dish big enough to bake brownies. A recent special of ricotta and lemon ravioli folded into a come-hither cream sauce with delicate chanterelle mushrooms courted brilliance. I savored each earthy, sensuous bite.
Entrees, for now, are less riveting than the smaller bites. Turbot, one of my favorite fish, is classic in a caper-brown butter sauce with spinach and fingerling potatoes, but veal saltimbocca leans to the salty, chewy side. A lamb shank, braised longer than the average person is awake in one day, is disappointingly bland. The meat is not nearly as seductively tender as one would expect from that length of cooking.
I wonder also if the kitchen doesn't stretch itself a bit thin. With nearly 40 choices among starters, pasta and entrees, and stunningly affordable three-course prix-fixe meals to boot, a Simple Grill selection of a la carte meats and sides seems like overkill.
But don't you dare skip dessert. Doty and his pastry chef, Edouard Fenouil, have crafted one of the most unhackneyed offering of sweets I've seen in many a moon. A homemade kit kat bar is a dreamy chocolate terrine with a surprise candy bar crunch. A buttermilk tart is carefully constructed to walk the tightrope between sharp and sweet. The Sauvignon Blanc ice cream that comes with the tart may be too subtle a pairing, but both are sublime on their own. If subtle isn't your thing, go for the warm doughnuts drizzled with chocolate, creme anglaise and caramel sauces. Krispy who?
If you have any interest at all in wine, MidCity's list will dazzle you. Start with its intelligent choices of wines by the carafe or half-carafe and go from there. Ever had a Tempranillo from Oregon? Ever tried Mourvedre? Pinot Meunier? Pinotage? This is the place to give 'em a whirl. Like the food, the wines fit your budget, and the staff will offer perceptive recommendations in any price range.
On the way out the door, one of my chums who often comes on reviews with me and has endured his share of mediocre meals on my behalf exclaims, "Wow, I think I'll actually come back to this one!" Yeah, me too. Doty and his crew are casting quite a charm in their new Midtown realm.