Would it be controversial to say Atlanta is a little lacking in the Italian-food arena? Well, there, I said it. This is particularly true of northern Italian cuisine – we do have some awesome, old-school, red-sauce-drenched temples to Americanized southern Italian, but only a handful of places aiming for the woodsier, more focused flavors the north of Italy offers. If Sotto Sotto were to close down, we'd be in real trouble.
And so the arrival of Valenza, a restaurant named after a city in northern Italy, is a little more exciting than it would be if we already had a plethora of restaurants filling this need.
The restaurant stands in the space that was M!X, at the opposite end of the Brookhaven shopping center that also houses Haven. Valenza is, as M!X was, Haven's little sister; it shares Michel and Tonya Arnette as its owners. M!X was short-lived, lasting less than two years. Perhaps it was simply too trendy for its own good, with the hype skyrocketing in the early days and then dying a slow death. Perhaps when chef Carmen Cappello left the restaurant, the soul of the experimenting kitchen left with him. Perhaps Brookhaven just needed a more grown-up restaurant.
Haven must be doing very well to finance M!X's ostentatious design and now the space's complete transformation into Valenza. One could hardly imagine two more different restaurants, both visually and in spirit. Where M!X embodied the trendy, adult-playground aesthetic, with a huge, curvy bar, open kitchen and crazy clear/opaque bathroom doors, Valenza is all grown up, with lots of wood, wine racks and romantic lighting.
And where M!X was all fun and games in the kitchen (who can forget the foie gras with barbecued eel?), Valenza plays it very safe. One can almost detect in the menu a management that might have been burned by too much boundary pushing in its last endeavor, because Valenza's menu is straightforward almost to a fault. Appetizers, pastas and mains are a tad predictable: bruschetta, ravioli, halibut, etc. But the technique is spot-on, and where chef Matt Swickerath has been allowed to go just a little beyond middle-of-the-road expectations, some wonderful things happen.
Take the coniglio – a staple Italian entree of rabbit served over polenta with tomatoes and olives. Tender rabbit, being neither too rich nor too light to hold up, luxuriates in rich forest flavors. The rabbit could be a tad moister, but it is far from dry, and completely delicious. Italy is not a country of culinary experimentation; rather it is firmly rooted in tradition. But some of its traditions, such as rabbit, have yet to become staples in suburban America. I'm glad Swickerath has brought this particular dish to Brookhaven. Similarly, the quail appetizer with greens, polenta and saba shows off the wonderful Italian relationship with gamey meats.
Swickerath also succeeds at adding details that completely transform a dish into something spectacular. The short ribs agnolotti on the pasta list is brought to intriguing life by tarragon. The veal ossobuco is a little weighed down by saffron risotto, but gets a big lift from the muscular freshness in the garnish of green herb sauce.
Simplicity reigns in most dishes, bringing tired preparations a new life. The tuna appetizer turns out to be a tartare, made with pine nuts and fennel pollen. It's utterly refreshing. The gnocchi, which makes for a lovely shared pasta course, is a perfectly weighted smattering of fatty pancetta slivers, chanterelle mushrooms and sage.
Swordfish is served with a salad of blood orange, grapefruit and fennel, a haunting combination that helped offset a slightly disappointing (a tad tough, just a teeny bit fishy) piece of fish.
If the kitchen falters in one way consistently, it's in its relationship with salt. I'm a bit of a salt fiend, and yet I often found myself wincing at a mouthful as full of crunchy salt as other components.
But oh, the joys of an all-Italian wine list! (There are two champagnes on the list, but I'm not quibbling.) Try a glass of the dry but ripe Vernaccia Di San Gimignano with the mussels or that gnocchi, or splurge on one of the Amarones or Brunellos with your pasta or ossobuco. It's sad but true that a wine list with no American wine is still a bold move in Atlanta, and management deserves kudos. Now all it needs is some Italian dessert wines.
Desserts are certainly worthy; my favorite is an uncomplicated peach crostada, served with honey gelato. Butter, eggs, sugar, fruit. What more could you ask for?
I, for one, was sad to see M!X go, although I do think the restaurant lost its soul when it lost its original chef. But I'm glad the Arnettes put something so completely different in its place. Valenza is exactly what Brookhaven needs: a grown-up restaurant that feels safe to the traditionalists and mildly exciting to the adventurous. And as an addition to the culinary landscape of Atlanta, I say we can always use more amore.