Remember the excitement, the hubbub, the general hype surrounding the 2002 opening of One Midtown Kitchen? It was the beginning of an era; Bob Amick and the rest of the Concentrics team were just setting out to redefine the Atlanta dining scene.
Actually, I don't remember that at all. I wasn't in Atlanta then, and I'm often grateful I arrived at the tail end of the glam-is-God phase of restaurant development in this city.
What I do remember is SAGA.
In late 2006, a strange, unassuming restaurant opened on Crescent Avenue with a chef named Drew Van Leuvan. The concept was weird: South Africa meets Georgia. The food – with influences from the south of two continents – struggled to define itself clearly. Despite the sometimes lack of definition, Van Leuvan was able to shine. In my 2007 review of SAGA, I said, "Van Leuvan is a chef whose talent is worthy of main-attraction status." My only complaint was that he labored under the task of preserving the owners' dreams of presenting South African food to Southern diners. "Van Leuvan's own cooking, unadorned by theme, can be a thing to behold," I wrote. I hoped for the day when I'd come across this chef in a kitchen where he didn't have to filter his cooking through any particular lens or gimmick.
And now, he's at One Midtown Kitchen. When Trois closed last year, Concentrics planned to reopen with Van Leuvan as chef. But a disagreement with the landlord caused the restaurant to close permanently, and the chef was installed at One instead. Tom Harvey, One's chef since Richard Blais' departure, was moved to Murphy's in Virginia-Highland.
Van Leuvan's new position seems like a great fit. His cooking at SAGA was boldly creative – One's history of cutting-edge cuisine should jive perfectly with this chef. Indeed, much of Van Leuvan's menu here is playful with a hint of daring.
House-made charcuterie includes Genoa salami with a satisfying meaty tang. Slick pork fat and powdery cocoa combine in a chocolate salami that's interesting mainly because it's not terrible.
I recall being consistently impressed with the chef's penchant for vinegar and brightness in the past. He showcases it here in an appetizer where fat Georgia shrimp, dressed in lobster vinaigrette, acquire earth, zing and sugar from pickled beets, and strange little gnudi-shaped packages of mango gelee. A duck confit appetizer balances the musk of the meat with the bitter snap of endive and a lashing of bracing blue cheese.
But there are significant problems with much of the menu, not in conception but in execution. Chocolate pasta with pickled cherries, lamb shoulder, and goat cheese had a strange identity crisis – part woodsy Italian dinner, part black forest cake. What undid the dish, however, was the pasta's consistency. It was stiff, chalky, and outrageously unpleasant. Uncooked? Perhaps. Or maybe the trick of making pasta out of chocolate creates the dried-out Play-Doh texture.
Fried chicken livers were unsalted and overcooked. An entrée of veal, breaded and served with smoked garbanzos and grapes, also had zero seasoning and lacked moisture. The copious, crumbly, dry garbanzos leant smokiness but little else. Only the sweet, mushy grapes imparted something close to personality. The rest tasted a lot like sawdust. It was barely edible.
One evening, the "nightly roast" was a slow roasted leg of lamb. While I'm happy to eat a lamb loin or chop fairly rare, the leg needs to be cooked closer to medium because of the leg's sinew and connective tissue. Cooking it longer breaks that stuff down. When cooked rare, or barely, as it was here, lamb leg is hard to cut, hard to chew, and practically impossible to eat. It was like trying to get at small morsels of jiggly flesh enrobed in rubber bands.
Interestingly, dessert is the place where One currently excels. A flawlessly executed lemon tart was all butter and crumble and sweet-but-not-cloying lemon. I thought I tasted traces of Jonathan St. Hilaire, Concentrics' corporate pastry chef until he turned his attentions to Bakeshop in 2009. But the PR folks assure me that Van Leuvan is responsible for desserts as well. His desserts are a heartening reminder of this chef's talent, and also make the mystery of the inedible entrées run deeper. How could the same chef who sent out that veal dish also be responsible for One's strawberry financier, a rectangular line of meltingly hot, airy but sticky cake, shot through with tart fruit – an absolute masterpiece of refined comfort? I don't get it.
Drew! I don't get it! What's going on?
In declaring my bewilderment to friends and fellow foodies, I heard, "It's the Amick-ization," implying that working for Concentrics is tantamount to selling one's creative cooking soul. But the Concentrics-style accoutrements, namely the still dazzling, dramatic space and the service, are where this restaurant hits its groove. Host Bob Boost seems genuinely thrilled to see every customer walk through the door. "We're so happy you're with us this evening!" he beams, his jolly energy contagious. Van Leuvan doesn't appear to be being pushed in any particular, pre-formatted direction. His food reads delicious and creative on the menu – it's the execution that's off. I'm sure no one at the restaurant's corporate level is demanding dry, unsalted food.
No, Van Leuvan can do better. I've tasted it in the past. Those desserts prove it. Talent plus creative control ought to equal excitement and flavor on the plate. Something isn't adding up. This equation needs to be tweaked.