If you were going to put a restaurant in the lobby of a swank new hotel downtown, what would it look like? Considering many of your customers would no doubt be business travelers and their guests, and because of the all-purpose nature of hotel restaurants, how would you propose navigating these somewhat pedestrian needs and still come up with a vibrant, quality concept?
One of the most overdone concepts in Atlanta is the slick steak/sushi/cocktail room. From Prime and Strip to Thrive and Luckie Food Lounge, plenty of restaurants have cashed in on the sushi-and-steak idea and, mostly, disappointed. It's hard not to be a cynic when it comes to sushi outside of a true sushi bar, or for that matter steak outside of a real steakhouse.
Leave it to Concentrics Restaurants to take a trendy, annoyingly pervasive concept, fit it into the constraints of a hotel, and do it exactly right.
Room, in the lobby of the new Twelve Centennial Park hotel, could easily have been called TWO: Lobby at Twelve. It is almost exactly the same idea as another of Concentrics' restaurants, Lobby, in the lobby of Twelve Atlantic Station. Same hotel group, same restaurant group, same chef, even. But instead of importing Lobby's menu, executive chef Nick Oltarsh has opted for a "modern steakhouse" lineup, with winning results.
One of the first smart moves made was to hire Tomohiro Naito to consult on the sushi menu. Naito is the chef and owner of Tomo in Vinings, and his standards for sushi quality are among the highest in Atlanta. The sushi menu at Room is more standard than what you'll find at Tomo, but the quality of fish is far beyond what you'd expect at a restaurant that mainly specializes in steak and schmooze. Even on the bargain-priced $18 lunch sushi special, you're likely to find silky, fatty tuna and pristine yellowtail. Fish is served cool, cut well and generously portioned.
On the dinner menu, it's worth trying some of Tomo's appetizers, which can be found at the top of the sushi menu. Paper-thin venison tataki fans across the plate, tender and meaty and with a froth of ginger and scallions strewn on top.
The regular menu is notable mainly for its rock-steady quality and assurance. The cooks here know how to do steak. They manage to tap into that alchemy that can turn a piece of meat into lusty satisfaction. Sides can be outrageously rich: Wild mushrooms swim in a Madeira cream sauce so extravagant, it's almost cheeky to include rounds of toasted, buttery brioche as a counterpoint. Cheeky in a naughty, lovable kind of way. Creamed spinach with leeks is light on the leeks and heavy on the heavy cream, but also luxurious and delicious.
There's a great deal of balance and class in the other entrees as well. Seared flounder with braised fennel is cloaked in a crab-and-bacon fondue, and tastes of quality and decadence without going overboard on any one component. This is not a menu that showcases Oltarsh's wild creativity; rather, it is straightforward and completely successful.
There's fun to be had with the appetizers, but many of them seem more like refined bar food than traditional openers to a gourmet meal. Gougers are actually three mini sliders stuffed with ham and Swiss cheese, and brightened up in a delightful fashion by vinegary pickled onions. Lime-marinated chicken wings are meaty and fun, but the spinach on the oysters Rockefeller (with the same cream-bomb aesthetic of the creamed-spinach side) completely obliterates the delicate flavor and texture of the oysters underneath.
With the help of the bar and some curtained private dining rooms, Room merges seamlessly with the hotel's lobby, one flowing into the other with restrained minimalist grace. Waiters dressed in all-black hotel-service garb, complete with steward's vests, walk the formal/fashionable line in both appearance and demeanor. Training shows here, and servers know their stuff without being overbearing in the slightest. Likewise, management is astute and a pleasure to talk to, especially when discussing the restaurant's smart wine list. A large selection of half bottles is an especially pleasing touch.
Perhaps the nicest thing about Room is that it channels all the assurance we can now expect from the Concentrics folks, but with very little of the hysterically trendy scene that usually accompanies their restaurants. Diners here are well-dressed and good-looking, but there's a pervasive calm to the place that is a welcome change.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Concentrics restaurant if it didn't have some kind of annoying gimmick. Here, it's semantics. Every category on the menu is in the past tense, as in "started," (appetizers), "sparkled" (sparkling wines) and "carbed" (starch sides). If this doesn't drive the inner copy editor in you mad, the bad grammar on the drinks menu might. My sister, who is on her way to becoming a high school English teacher (really), was horrified by the description of the Coco Bean Trifle: "looks like coffee with cream. tastes like your having another after this one."
But all proofreading nightmares aside, Room manages to play to its audience and uphold quality and competence at the same time. The perfect modern hotel restaurant might not be the most exciting project, but it is an impressive accomplishment all the same.