The spring of 2011 will not be remembered as the most exciting season for restaurants in Atlanta. Openings and chef changes operate on a schedule that ebbs and flows. There are a few interesting projects on the horizon, but this has been a particularly slow few months.
At times like these, I tend to turn to places that have been neglected in the excitement of covering new restaurants. What have we missed? What deserves a second look, after the tension of those first months has calmed? Over the last few weeks, I revisited a number of restaurants that, on first review, seemed as though they still had something to work out. For whatever reasons, these places weren't achieving what they wanted to be, and I hoped that in the intervening months, they might have improved.
It was a slightly depressing exercise. Not because no progress has been made, but because the progress was less than I had hoped. Only one had improved enough to warrant a higher star rating.
So, let's start with the good news.
When Drew VanLeuvan became the chef at One Midtown Kitchen in 2009, I had high hopes. Ever since VanLeuvan's stint as chef at the short-lived Saga, I'd considered him one of Atlanta's most promising cooks. But the food he initially delivered at One Midtown Kitchen didn't match that promise. I was so baffled by the odd flavors, sometimes bland and sometimes raucously mismatched, that in my March 2010 review of the restaurant I was inspired to inquire, "Drew! I don't get it! What's going on?"
The intervening year has apparently given VanLeuvan time to settle into his role at One. In the past weeks, I've had far more composed and balanced food compared to anything I'd eaten there last year.
A bracingly fresh hunk of Alaskan halibut sits atop a purée of spring onions, is topped with pickled ramps and accompanied by a smattering of mushrooms. The flavors were pure, the fish cooked perfectly. The dish was neither too rich nor austere. It spoke to the season, both in ingredients and in tone — light and playful, as befitting of spring.
A plate of gnocchi comes bathed in a bright tomato sauce topped with strips of crispy lamb belly. On their own, the sauce is too sweet and the lamb belly too salty, but eat the dish together, as intended, and the lamb and tomato balance each other harmoniously.
There's still an outlandish quality to much of VanLeuvan's food that works with the space and the concept. Unlike the new vogue in Atlanta restaurants — the Southern gentleman approach where subtlety, nostalgia and simplicity reign — One Midtown Kitchen harkens back to a time in our recent past when the diva was more popular. There's nothing subtle about VanLeuvan's cooking. Fried chicken livers come with honey, pig jowl and candied orange peel — a tasty jumble of competing sweetness and richness that's a tad overwhelming. In this setting, though, the drama works.
VanLeuvan still has room to improve. There's a heavy-handed approach to some dishes, and in some cases simplification would help. I love the idea of crispy fiddlehead ferns with Gorgonzola, but the delicacy of these green swirls of vegetable was somewhat lost in the fried breading. Still, the overwhelming majority of dishes has nuance and creativity that outweighs the occasional slipup. Desserts continue to shine. Service, as always, is courteous and professional.
I had far less success in revisiting 5 Seasons Westside, another restaurant that inspired high hopes when it opened in 2009. My experiences then were almost uniformly bad — a case of great ingredients (5 Seasons is known for its dedication to local, seasonal produce) suffering in the hands of a kitchen that was perhaps reaching too far.
I wish I could say my recent visits were different. One look at the specials menu caused me to sigh with relief. Grilled lamb chops with spring peas, goat cheese whipped potatoes and mint gastrique? Yes, please. But the lamb was overcooked and seemed to have been done on a low heat — no char, but still cooked through. The spring peas were puckery and dry, so much so that they crunched.
Wild boar and English pea soup was grossly undersalted, the broth tasting like thick water. From the regular menu, rabbit enchiladas confused me: Aren't enchiladas baked in sauce? And why the flour tortillas? They're stacked prettily in a pyramid configuration, but they lack the mush and comfort of the real deal. A carrot salsa accompaniment also had zero salt, and its spicing was incense-like. It tasted like hippies.
For dessert, a lovely house-made pastry crust was cooked into cardboard consistency by its trip through the microwave, and the unevenly hot filling was barely discernible as pear. Why smoosh the pear up into paste? Why add so much spicing, rather than let the fruit speak for itself?
Service was fine (except for a forgotten appetizer), and the beer was tasty (except for the fact that when I asked what was darkest, they pointed me to a pale ale). But I fear this menu is simply too huge. I'd rather have fewer things done well than all these choices with such a high rate of failure.
The equation at La Fourchette is a harder math to figure. The high-end, Mediterranean-inspired restaurant in Buckhead has become an instant hit, and since my review in November 2010 I've heard nothing but praise.
There's no doubt that chef Jeffrey Wall has a boatload of talent. In fact, some of the dishes I've had at La Fourchette recently would be impressive on any menu, anywhere in the city. A quenelle of perfectly creamy chicken liver pâté came with a brightly tropical, gingery purée. My dining companions fought over it. Lamb shank was meltingly tender, the richness of the meat offset by the brightness and crunch of snow peas. Give Wall almost any piece of fish and he will cook it flawlessly.
The same, unfortunately, does not go for steak. A rib-eye was droopy and full of fat and sinew, obviously having been cooked at too low a temperature. An intriguing savory bread pudding came on the side, and was delicious — all fresh herbs and crusty/soggy yum — but it arrived at the table cold.
A Jerusalem artichoke soup tasted like hot milk that someone had waved an artichoke over and then drizzled with truffle oil. And the bouillabaisse one evening was literally a hot mess, with clams cooked to nubbins, disintegrating mussels and tough shrimp.
It's possible to have a beautiful meal at La Fourchette — I know because it's happened to me. But it's also possible to spend hundreds of dollars and walk away baffled. Why is the good stuff so good, when the bad is so disarmingly bad?
I still say it's inexperience. Wall is destined to be one of our city's great chefs. But he's not there yet.