Last year, Lure and the Optimist opened within two months and two miles of each other. Both were intent on bringing a fresh perspective to Atlanta's seafood — not as stodgy as the Oceanaire, not as touristy as Legal Sea Foods, and not as old-school as Atlanta Fish Market. Comparing the two is inevitable. Both restaurants emphasize fresh ingredients and sustainable sourcing; give equal attention to the drinks that go so well with seafood; and are helmed by ambitious chefs. They are also important cogs in the wheels of vibrant restaurant groups — Lure with Fifth Group Restaurants (Ecco, Alma Cocina, La Tavola, South City Kitchen) and the Optimist with Rocket Farm Restaurants, Ford Fry's emerging empire (JCT, No. 246, the upcoming King + Duke). But only one of the two grabbed the attention of Esquire magazine and was named the best new restaurant in the country. It wasn't Lure.
Despite the one-sided accolades from the national press, Lure also offers an attention-worthy seafood experience. Its dining room, full of wood-heavy nautical décor, feels like an adventure trip in the dark, cozy cabin of a whaler (though one with a very talented interior designer). And while the menu delivers a strong sampling of classic American seafood, Lure also ventures out into foreign waters, with a keen eye on the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Asia.
Above all, Lure loves a good hook, and latches onto a few too many disparate food trends. Uni shows up with french fries and truffle sabayon. Octopus and pork are tucked into the ever-popular lettuce wrap. And fried oysters show up as an equally crowd-pleasing slider. The beverage program also tries to hit every possible of-the-moment temptation. There are shochu cocktails, punch bowls, bubbly bottled cocktails, an assortment of amari, nonalcoholic shrubs, and even prosecco on tap. There's nothing wrong with sliders and Vietnamese lettuce wraps, or Spanish tapas, or a big drinks list for that matter. But this menu suffers from the scattershot approach. Lure's focus needs more focus.
The dinner menu corrals offerings into three sections: one for all things chilled and raw (oysters, salads, steak tartare), one for an assortment of small cooked plates, and one for "sizeable" entrées. Fortunately, executive chef David Bradley and his team nail what is most important for a seafood house — high-quality, expertly prepared seafood. I can't say the same for the tableside service. When our waiter offered to fillet our whole Georgia rainbow trout for us, we were left with a messy and bone-filled pile of fish. But butchering aside, the simple preparation with lemon, butter, and thyme proved the merits of the fish's execution. A side of smoked trout grits added an indulgent counterpoint.
Lure excels at straightforward dishes such as salty fried calamari and flaky fish and chips covered in a flavorful sourdough batter. Tender steamed Calendar Island mussels demanded additional bread to soak up the last drops of their citrusy beer and crème fraîche broth.
But when the flavors and ingredients became more intricate, results bobbed up and down. Bradley's use of Vietnamese and Indian flavors is delightful, as in the tender, smoke-infused grilled octopus pork lettuce wraps with fresh herbs and a bright fish sauce; and sautéed grouper with deeply layered spices of sweet curried corn and sour pickled lime. But the Maine sea urchin and truffle sabayon with french fries reeked of truffle oil, obliterating the delicate joy that is a good piece of uni. A starter of steak tartare was overwhelmed by a smoky soy seaweed tapenade and eggplant purée. And even a plate of nicely cooked Georges Bank scallops fell prey to an overly sweet butternut squash purée.
It's hard to go wrong on the fairly short but well-chosen beer list of local brews and Belgians that pair well with seafood. The wine list is longer and equally well-chosen, skewing toward lesser-known Old World offerings. The presence of a magnum of Domaine Weinbach riesling from Alsace had me wishing I had a few hundred dollars more to spend.
As for the cocktails, the Me & My Monkey delivered a Southern sway of rye and peach that went perfectly with the house-smoked seafood platter. The Cane e Gatto tasted like a floral-scented candle thanks to a combination of botanical gin and the Italian herbal liqueur Strega. The bottled cocktails are refreshing and bright, though the Bali Hai with St. Germain and grapefruit bitters tasted a bit too much like Ocean Spray Ruby Red. It didn't help that our affable server had no idea what one of the drink's main ingredients was. Two $4 nonalcoholic shrubs were available on my visits. The roasted strawberry balsamic had clear fruit flavor and an acidic bite, but the pumpkin-ginger tasted more like a savory, chilled soup gone wrong.
While clearly unafraid to experiment with exotic flavors, Lure would do well to stick to a more focused course, and resist the temptation to hook every trend that floats by. Although, at times, delicate main ingredients are overpowered by competing components, Lure's greatest strength is in its well-sourced and well-cooked seafood.