It'd be silly to assert that restaurant critics don't come to the job with a certain set of prejudices. Over the years, I'm sure mine have become clear. If a chef stakes his money and reputation on a place of his own, if he gambles on a real neighborhood rather than a gleaming skyscraper, if he finally gets the opportunity to cook his own food rather than something a corporate boss dictates, chances are I'll be rooting for him. These are the stories I relish telling; the success stories where substance wins out over artifice.
It was with this attitude that I approached Serpas True Food. The restaurant is Scott Serpas' first solo venture after stepping out from under the Concentrics umbrella where he worked for three years as chef at Two Urban Licks. While I love the outrageous drama of Two Urban Licks as much as the next proud Atlantan, I always found Serpas' cooking there a tad too gimmicky for truly serious consideration. So I was excited to see what the chef could come up with on his own terms. Add a renovated old industrial building in the Old Fourth Ward and PR touting the chef's passion for the "authentic tastes of single ingredients," and I was ready to believe the hype.
Indeed, the space, in the Studioplex building at the tippy top of Auburn Avenue, is lovely. Exposed brick walls and warm lighting create the base for features such as an open kitchen with bar seating, a wall-sized photo of cotton blossoms, and a convivial bar hugging the corner of the room.
Serpas' "true food" claim is a tad more confusing. The chef is experimenting with the idea of American cuisine as a melting pot. Much of his menu nods to his Louisiana roots, but there are many flavors represented, including Asian, Southwestern and classic French. Serpas finds the most success when he sticks to one influence per dish.
The waitress told us that the restaurant is already well-known for its fried oysters, and I can see why. The light breading delicately holds the briny mollusks, still soft and sexy beneath their crust. Pickled mirliton (chayote) and rémoulade vie for attention – one puckery, one creamy – creating just the right balance.
Serpas' strength lies in his ability to find two or three unexpected flavors and marry them with interesting textural juxtapositions. Soft, almost mushy eggplant hushpuppies have a pleasingly firm exterior and are complemented by classic red sauce and the tang of blue cheese.
But in many instances, Serpas' food could use a firm editing hand. Tuna tartar, pleasingly displayed in a large stemmed glass bowl, is so besmirched with seasoning, you can't taste the tuna at all. Spice, imparted not with fresh chilis but with some kind of powder, fights with sesame oil, sugar and fruit – a stickily sweet sopping mess.
Wild mushroom tostadas are patently schizophrenic in origin, as if Julia Child took too much peyote on a trip to Oaxaca and decided that brie, mushrooms, heavy cream, chickpeas, tortillas and tomatillos might be a great idea. Not only are the flavors confused, they're muddy, no single ingredient getting enough space to shine.
A warm white bean salad gets closer to purity of intention, with a tomato base, smoked ham, feta, and arugula for punctuation, although I missed the acid that would've brightened the dish.
"Pigs in a blanket" make for yummy bar snacks, the fully flavored andouille sausage capped with buttery puff pastry. Again, the simplest of ideas, executed well, make for the most satisfying mouthfuls.
Serpas manages to pare back and simplify with his entrees. Short ribs are simply accompanied by potato gratin with just enough celery root to spark interest. The horseradish cottage cheese topping is texturally interesting and not entirely pleasing, but easily avoided if hot cheese curds freak you out.
Large scallops sit atop a kind of Thai hash – small cubes of yams and eggplant mixed with Penang curry. It's a rich and slightly oily presentation that could also use a shot of brightness. Sea bass over lentils with Brussels sprouts is coated in richness. These dishes are tasty but lack clean flavor profiles. Everything is overworked just enough to miss the point.
It's obvious that Serpas is a chef who understands seasoning, proportion and balance. There's rarely a question of too much salt or overcooked meat. The guy's technique is spot on. But his flavors are too often confused, and not pared down enough. He needs to get back to his original intent – that of "true food" – the idea that allowing one flavor to shine is the quickest route to heartfelt satisfaction. It's an intent I'm still rooting for.