It’s outrageous, impressive even, the temerity, the absolute balls-out hubris of opening an upscale hotel and hotel restaurant in Atlanta right now. With other high-end hotels falling to foreclosure and hotel restaurants changing concept mid-stream to combat the lack of demand, it’s a special brand of audacity that comes with saying, “A new expensive hotel! That’s what Atlanta needs!”
That’s kind of what Loews CEO Jonathan Tisch said in the recent Atlanta Business Chronicle story “Loews Hotels optimistic about Atlanta outlook.” Or, in CEO speak, he said that Atlanta is “a market that had demand generators built in that would continue to grow and thrive.” Let’s hope those “demand generators” have enough, uh, demand to make the $1.2 billion project worthwhile. I say that with all sincerity — not for Loews, but for the 221 Atlantans the hotel now employs.
In the midst of all this, literally, is Eleven, the restaurant located off the hotel’s lobby and swanky bar. You wouldn’t know it existed from the website – the hotel’s page mentions nothing about a restaurant. But restaurant there is, and oh what a hotely restaurant it is.
“It reminds me of the hotel restaurants in Las Vegas,” my friend said, staring out over the mainly empty dining room on a recent Friday night. “Not the huge celeb-chef ones, but the standard, open-24-hours secondary places. Where you come to get a Cobb salad and a cocktail between gambling.” And that’s the problem at Eleven: Despite high design and a few genuinely well-conceived dishes, it exudes a kind of upscale anywhere USA vibe. Las Vegas. New Jersey. Atlanta.
Chef Olivier Gaupin uses the language of farm-to-table, and aims for a Southern theme. Some of the best dishes here are the ones that channel Southern classics. You know those country ham biscuits you get at catered Southern weddings, the kind with sharp cheese added to the biscuit dough that you pick up off the buffet table and cart around on your little black plastic plate? And you get them just to pad your stomach as you load up at the open bar, but between bites you think, dang, these are pretty tasty. Gaupin takes that dish and adds quality smoked salmon instead of ham. The three of them lined up on a plate would constitute a decent, if not particularly nutritiously balanced, meal alongside a cocktail. The salad of baby celery greens accompanying the biscuits will be ignored by most diners, which is a shame given its wispy green flavor undercut with a hint of vegetal menace.
Also great as a bar-nibble-cum-meal is the smoked trout flatbread, which showcases a smoky, über-fresh smattering of trout with arugula and red onion. The dish would be better if its pita-esque flatbread had a slight crisp to it, but even in its soft chewy state the dish succeeds.
But from there the menu starts to show its foibles. Pork tenderloin, glazed with molasses and set like pompous dominoes atop a line of collards and wedges of sweet potato, tasted fine but uninspired. I wondered why so much gussying went into such an honest Southern staple of a dish.
I realized that my problem with the style of cooking at Eleven is its fusion: fusion at its most pointless, jamming together the trendiness of Southern cooking and the pretensions of upscale Continental cuisine. We may normally think of that kind of bastardization as a melding of Eastern and Western flavors, but the South has a cuisine as distinct as any other region, and just as noble. And that cuisine is as contradictory to ’80s faux-French hotel cooking as Japanese is to Italian. Southern food has proudly taken its place in the fine dining pantheon in recent years, and so it should. But is there any reason, any possible wisdom in shoving perfectly good red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting between boring, tempered chocolate disks and calling it a Napoleon? I’m all for creativity, really, but dressing up classics just for the sake of it is a crime as depraved as wasabi in the mashed potatoes.
And so, rather than turn grits into a “dip” served with bizarre dehydrated vegetable chips that are neither up to the task of scooping the grits nor particularly well-matched flavor-wise, why not just serve grits as a side to the pork dish? Why pair an overly sweet “corn pudding” with scallops — the richest and sweetest of shellfish, and certainly not a staple on most Southern menus? Much of this food would be better if it were toned down, simplified, and released from its Euro-centric, or conversely, faux-Southern pretenses. Why is the bouillabaisse called Southern bouillabaisse? It’s just bouillabaisse, complete with crusty bread and served with saffron aioli. A more straightforward bouillabaisse does not exist, although one with less-overcooked contents certainly does.
It’s a fine line, distinguishing elevation from bastardization. But the food at Eleven lacks honesty, and I could find no good reason for the ribbons and bows that often served only to distract from what might otherwise have been a perfectly good dish. Perhaps, for the visiting Yankee who stays at Loews and comes to the restaurant looking for grits the same way a grizzled gambler bellies up to a Las Vegas table at 3 a.m. looking for lobster, Eleven will provide some comfort. But for the rest of us, a swank bar scene and an occasional snack are probably the best use for this pretty but faintly vapid restaurant.