Something about Sweet Lowdown, the new restaurant on Peachtree Street that's a collaboration between chef Carmen Cappello and Rodney Wedge, the owner of Fuego, feels like an airport restaurant. I'm not talking about the packed, filthy food courts full of screaming kids and spilled french fries, but the swanky sports bars and restaurants that you can sometimes find near the business-class lounges of newer airports. Despite the cow-print carpet and cushy booths, something about the cavernous interior of Sweet Lowdown mimics the ambiance of such a place, a location-less American eatery with a trendy vibe and a corporate sheen.
That feeling is an ironic quirk, given that the chef is someone whose food in the past has been all personality, and that the restaurant is aiming for regionalism as part of the welcome movement in Atlanta toward Southern cuisine. But take a closer look at that huge black-and-white photo above the bar, with its attractive young drinkers reveling at a country barbecue. Remind you of anything? A beer commercial, perhaps? You got it -- Miller Light bottles appear throughout the photo with disquieting clarity. If a beer commercial as art doesn't scream airport, I don't know what does.
Cappello gained quite a following as the chef at M!x (as in "mix"), the Brookhaven sister restaurant to Haven. His food was highly ambitious, with combinations such as foie gras and eel or sashimi and cornflakes dotting the small-plates menu there. For the most part, Cappello was able to pull these acrobatics off, not always with authority but usually with grace.
The big ideas are on display at Sweet Lowdown as well. Those tuna cubes with cornflakes made it onto this menu pretty much intact, although I remember being more titillated by them at M!x. Curious combinations still have a strong presence on Cappello's menu, and a playful, thoughtful aesthetic is the ongoing theme. But while at M!x Cappello's ingredients were always of the highest quality -- seasonality was one of Cappello's proud strengths -- and the food seemed lovingly fussed over, the execution at Sweet Lowdown is often off. Ingredients are out of season, food arrives overcooked and ideas that sounded interesting on the menu would still sing on the plate if the proper care had been taken. There are some real winners here, but there are some true disappointments as well.
The winners include an appetizer of chicken livers, fried in cornmeal and served over a watermelon salad, that are still pink and creamy inside, and the watermelon is a delightfully surprising accompaniment (although it would be better if it were July, not January). On the entree menu, the fried catfish is a crispy satisfaction, and the huge slab of beef brisket is wonderfully smoky and fatty. Order the lemon layer cake for dessert and you'll find yourself with a classically moist dream of a dessert, a throwback to a time when desserts were about honest pleasure.
But honest pleasure is missing from much of the menu. The calamari with sambal dressing was one of my favorites at M!x, an addictive bowl of crunchy, spicy squid. Here, it is greasy and not nearly crispy enough, and the squid is on the chewy side. Fried green tomatoes also have textural issues, going beyond firm and into the realm of wooden. A tomato salad with cornbread showcases tasteless (January) cherry tomatoes and large bready hunks of what seems to be something between a biscuit and a cake. The smoked-chicken spring rolls with collards are actually very tasty, but veer too far into the fusion for fusion's sake realm for my tastes. The spring roll presentation does nothing for the dish but cute it up.
On a plate of bacon steak (pork belly) and redfish, it is heartbreaking to find the square of pig dry and the redfish rubbery. I loved the inclusion of smoked oysters on a generous trout dish with black-eyed peas, but on another evening when I asked for my salmon entree rare, it came out cooked through. The dish, which includes a pile of well-seasoned dirty rice and a cute tartar "taco" made from salmon skin, sits atop a smear of delicious beet butter, the flavor of which would be totally lost if you didn't wipe it up from its cooked-on-the-plate posture with your fingers.
Most of the desserts can't hold a candle to the home-cooked allure of that layer cake. A trio of cheesecakes barely passes muster, the best being a blackberry version that is also the simplest -- turtle and banana make up the other two and taste like the mall. The bread pudding is like a huge, giant, as-big-as-your-head soggy coffee cake. The coffee is worse than your office coffee, and I know that's saying something.
Overcooked fish, dried-out pork belly and greasy calamari are symptoms of an under-trained kitchen. Watermelon, tomatoes and blackberries figuring heavily on a winter menu are symptoms of a management unwilling to invest in quality. At Sweet Lowdown, the ambition is there but the execution has faltered. Cappello is still an ideas man, and it can be a pleasure to find his thoughts on your plate. Too often the details are lost -- perhaps in preparation, perhaps in sourcing of ingredients -- but somewhere along the line, the genesis of inspiration has failed to translate.
I haven't lost faith in Carmen Cappello yet, but Sweet Lowdown has a ways to come if this venture hopes to be more than money and talent wasted.