The career of a chef is a little like the career of a pop star. There are those who are one-hit wonders, riding the wave of a hot dining trend or neighborhood, then disappearing into oblivion. There are those who gain a loyal fan base and manage to thrive over the years despite the lack of major attention. There are the divas, who start with huge sales and then go to Vegas for the big money. The fruits of their labor become more streamlined and glitzy over time, if slightly less soulful. And then there are the icons, the ones who get critical acclaim for their newest venture, even 20 or 30 years after they first hit the scene.
In the 1980s, Paul Albrecht was a rock star in Atlanta. Pano's & Paul's was one of Atlanta's most successful restaurants, and still is, despite the fact that Paul left almost 10 years ago. But his influence remains, as do many of his original menu items. Some say that Pano's & Paul's set the standard for dining in Atlanta. At the very least, it is a model of success, and led the way to the restaurant empire that is now the Buckhead Life restaurant group.
It is impossible not to take all of this into account when considering Paul's, the restaurant that Albrecht has opened in the old Philippe's location in Buckhead. Albrecht spent some time in Florida after parting ways with Buckhead Life back in 1998. After some time in the kitchen at Spice in Midtown, Paul is back in Buckhead, playing for that same crowd that embraced him so lovingly in the '80s. It appears that he has some loyal fans; from early in the week on through the weekend, Paul's is packed.
It's an inviting, congenial space, with a kind of old-money glow -- no glitz, just classic American bistro decor with some colored glass and big paintings of fruit thrown in. The menu is all about rockin' to the oldies. Paul is dishing up many of his classic hits, from the batter-fried lobster tail with drawn butter and honey mustard that was his signature dish at Pano's & Paul's (and remains on the menu there) to throwbacks like "sunburnt" tuna and garnishes of "sweet hay." The offerings are a hodgepodge of classics from all over the map -- from matzo ball soup to a Mediterranean dip appetizer to sushi.
When Paul sticks to the Continental cuisine, such as seared sweetbreads with chanterelles, he is at the top of his game. Plays for modernism, like the sunburnt tuna, fall flat. Lightly seared tuna comes resting on top of chunks of watermelon. The dish makes about as much sense in this day and age as huge shoulder pads. The visual effect is kitschy, and the flavors just don't pay off.
The Bavarian-born chef often does quite well with Southern-tinged dishes. An appetizer of Carolina trout over a salad of black-eyed peas was both smoky and refreshing, the peas popping with flavor. The pork tenderloin, despite the funny hay garnish (actually crispy fried laces of sweet potato), was tender and flavorsome, cooked a perfect medium. The take on fish and grits is less successful. A tasty herb-crusted flounder is served over confetti grits, which are rich and creamy -- so far, so good. But the accompanying slices of tangerine and caper berries confused the dish too much to allow for any harmony.
The most confusing thing about the menu is the sushi. Time after time, I went in intent on making sushi a part of my meal, and had trouble figuring out where to fit it in. Finally I decided to just take the plunge and order some as an appetizer, and it was perfectly fine, with fresh flavors and pretty rolls, but it didn't harmonize with the rest of the meal. Having the urge to come here for a full Japanese meal seemed unlikely as well.
Desserts are retro without a hint of irony -- huge ice cream pie slices arrive still showing their plastic-wrap wrinkles, and a chocolate tart is rich and gussied up -- "It's the fried lobster tail of the dessert menu," our waiter told us with a wink.
Despite the flashback aspect, there's something truly comforting about the restaurant. One night, sitting at the bar among a crowd of regulars, I ordered a calf's liver entree and found myself in a whirl of nostalgia. The liver, served with potato hash, caramelized onions and cooked apples, was as honest and American as fancy restaurant food gets. All around me, older men drinking spirits ran into acquaintances and greeted each other heartily. There is a whole host of regulars here, and many of them know each other. There is a vibraphone player named Shady Lain. Chef Paul works the room, as do his two sons. Service is personable and friendly -- you won't find any waiters here whose haircuts got them the job.
This may be a restaurant that is looking to bring back the glory days of a bygone era, but is that such a bad thing? Don't we have plenty of thoroughly modern restaurants in this town already? Paul's may be leaning toward adult contemporary, but it is also warm and comfortable. In pop terms, I believe you would call it classic.