There's a bit of culinary carpetbagging going on in Atlanta. Major New York players are setting up shop in our fair city.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten has expanded his Culinary Concepts global empire with the opening in March of Spice Market, inside the W Midtown, (the official grand opening is next week). Tom Colicchio (who before becoming famous as the big-guy boss of Bravo's "Top Chef" actually worked for Danny Meyer's culinary dynasty in New York) will open Craft as part of the Mansion on Peachtree this fall.
Restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow has expanded his China Grill Management with the opening of Maxim Prime, partnering with lad mag "Maxim" to bring Atlanta something similar to his Kobe Club in Manhattan. And French super chef Laurent Tourondel will open BLT Steak inside the W Atlanta Downtown Hotel & Residences in January 2009.
We love big, loud and bossy. And New York's chefs possess those in spades.
So what can we expect from these above-the-Mason-Dixon-Line migrants? Here's a look at what these chefs offer in New York and what Atlantans can look forward to sans a plane ticket.
Craft, Tom Colicchio's jewel offering simple, perfectly — um — crafted American cuisine in the Flatiron District, defines modern American dining. In the midst of an old linen factory, Manhattan's Top Chef has created an elegant atmosphere with gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows and drop lighting. It's fetching without being fussy, and executive chef Damon Wise's menu is as simple and lovely as the room.
You can mix and match from selections of first and main courses, salads, charcuterie and side dishes, or enjoy as a table the prix fixe menu. Either way, the offerings will be impeccably prepared, from tender, freshly made sweet pea agnolotti to a silky smooth terrine of foie gras served with a syrupy raisin chutney and buttery toast points of brioche. Wild arugula and lemon arrive in a salad that redefined for me how good fresh arugula really is — nutty, astringent, with a mild menthol affect, made even more maddening with lemon and Parmesan cheese.
Fresh and simply prepared are the cornerstones of great American cooking, and they are Colicchio's calling card. Desserts are perhaps the best part of the evening: buttermilk ice cream rounds out the sweetness of brioche pain perdu with sweet roasted bananas and citrus caramel sauce. Create your own from a list that includes fresh, house-fried doughnuts and brown butter ice cream.
Service is attentive, never intrusive and the wine list is well-procured, albeit a bit overpriced.
What to expect here?
Reps for the restaurant are tight-lipped as to what the interior will have in common with its New York counterpart. Re-creating the Flatiron feel of lower Manhattan may be a challenge, considering the restaurant's location inside the Mansion on Peachtree. The chef, Kevin Maxey, has been cherry-picked from inside the Colicchio empire, having worked for the super chef during Colicchio's Gramercy Tavern days and as the chef at Craft Dallas. The late summer opening has been pushed to fall. That's still a long way off for a restaurant concept, and no one's talking while the flavor lasts. 3376 Peachtree Road, inside the Mansion on Peachtree, 404-995-7580, www.mansiononpeachtree.com.
BLT Steak, in East Midtown, boasts the kind of big-city brazenness all bistros should: It's loud and the tables are so closely knit that you're practically eating in your neighbor's lap. The restaurant's signature chalkboard menu gives it Old World charm. Acclaimed chef-owner Laurent Tourondel is quickly gobbling up New York City real estate with BLT Steak, BLT Market, BLT Fish and BLT Prime. Put "bistro" in front of "Laurent" and "Tourondel" and you can figure the wacky can-I-buy-a-vowel-origin of the name.
And when you can actually hear your waiter over the din, you'll find service to be prompt and ready to cater to an elite business crowd that's more than satisfied with a short-but-sweet selection of a la carte steaks and sides.
You can order Kobe beef for $26 an ounce, with a five-ounce minimum. Brought to the table pre-prep for inspection, the tiny filet is marbled more than an Italian museum and melts like velvet on your tongue once grilled. It's hardly worth the $130 price tag, though.
A much more satisfying meal comes from wandering through the menu, where braised beef short ribs fall from the bone, cooked slow to sweet, almost sticky perfection and brought to the table in a large cast-iron pot.
Craving cheesecake? BLT serves a slice the size of the island with rhubarb and a scoop of refreshing raspberry sorbet. The restaurant offers a straightforward approach to wine, with a well-edited list of a few of each of the world's best, so no need to spend 20 minutes deciding.
What to expect here?
It's too far out to tell, according to PR reps for chef Tourondel. But Atlantans can count on Tourondel to open the restaurant and stay for at least a month. The chef will likely be hired locally, according to Bullfrog & Baum, the NYC-based public relations firm that handles BLT and Spice Market. It's the French chef's first partnership with Starwood Hotels. 45 Ivan Allen Plaza, inside the W Atlanta Downtown Hotel and Residences at Allen Plaza, 404-990-7715, www.bltrestaurants.com.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market has taken Manhattan's Meatpacking District by its cobblestone streets and turned the area on its ear. One of the first to the party, the restaurant brought a clientele to the district that looks good, has disposable income and loves to hang out. Coupled with a menu that offers Southeast Asian street food in small bites at reasonable prices, it's like a romper room for the pink martini set.
The most amazing thing about this restaurant is, well, the restaurant. A mammoth space is splashed with waves of visual overload, a luxurious tapestry of Chinese-like lanterns drop from one floor to the next, surrounded with sculpted wood and chairs and settees of white leather and mahogany. Intriguing and beautiful, it has the feel of an opium den on 'roids.
The din is amazing, and reminiscent of the see-and-be-seen crowds at popular spots in Atlanta — an oddity since Vongerichten is such a well-respected chef. It's hard to take this menu all that seriously.
Still, the food can be as mysteriously weird as the decor: Mussels steamed with lemongrass, dried chiles, Thai basil and coconut milk and hot, spicy black pepper shrimp top a list that starts with some of the best pappadum this side of masala.
Things start going south with steamed lobster with garlic and chili; Thai chicken wings are too big and salty. An evening here starts with lots of promise, but the menu nose dives into disappointment after the first courses.
"Thai jewels" are a signature dessert that's a refreshing alternative to rice pudding and panna cotta, though the mochi and funky fruits proved too weird-textured for my fiance, even with a scoop of delicately flavored crushed coconut ice.
What to expect here?
Spice Market Atlanta opened in March, and like its NYC counterpart, has quickly taken over as the new scene in Midtown's new W Hotel. The cocktail-craving crowds could easily be switched, though folks would notice once they got a good gander at the digs, which are remarkably subdued compared to those of New York.
Upstairs from the W's lobby, giant sculpted wood boxes drop from the ceiling, encasing strings of oversized bells. Pillows with rich Oriental patterns line raised banquettes toward the center of the room, ensconced in glass. The menu is much the same as in New York, and chef Ian Winslade, formerly of Posh and Bluepointe, executes it every bit as well. It suffers the same fate, though, with appetizers far outshining the rest of the menu. 188 14th Street, inside the W Atlanta Midtown, 404-549-5450, www.spicemarketatlanta.com.
Jeffrey Chodorow is no stranger to controversy: The restaurateur vowed to follow New York Times' dining critic Frank Bruni's every move after Bruni bashed Kobe Club, in West Midtown. Steak is the big deal here — Wagyu beef from Japan, the U.S. and Australia. And it doesn't disappoint.
The beef is exquisite, seared, with a mind-numbingly tender center. And similar to BLT Steak, this stuff ain't cheap — four ounces cost $120.
Other goodies reign — creamed corn is truffled and buttered and so full of crunch and flavor you'll forget you just swallowed over a hundred bucks worth of beef. Potatoes in a cast-iron skillet with lobster and chorizo will set your mind right, too.
The problem is the gimmick that comes with Chodorow's restaurants — katana samarai swords hanging from the ceiling are so over-the-top it's frightening; chains drip from walls and the darkness of the booths and overall atmosphere gives the feel of a bordello, not a serious beef house. Like Spice Market, the menu has its sticking points — by evening's end, you'll be hard-pressed to recall anything exceptional but the beef.
In Atlanta, Chodorow's China Grill Management has opened the first of a global expansion of restaurants called Maxim Prime. Similar to Kobe Club, this concept is partnered with men's magazine, Maxim, and Chodorow has taken a beating with the New York press over it — the restaurant has been called everything from a "breastaurant" to an upscale Hooters.
In truth, it looks even more like a cheesy bordello than Kobe Club. Inside the Glenn Hotel downtown, the bar is backlit with LED screens adorned with leaves and snakes; chiseled under its smooth surface are the deadly sins and virtues. Enjoy a flight of girlie martinis sitting in front of "wrath." The girls who wait run the gamut from horrifyingly bad to incredibly professional.
But the real surprise is the menu, executed by local chef Daniel Zoby. Once you get past listings of "twins" and "threesomes," the dishes are often exceptional — deviled eggs are crowned with white and black truffles, caviar and gold leaf; the steaks (while not Wagyu) are juicy and inviting, and the corn and potatoes as good as Kobe Club's, and very similar. 110 Marietta Street, inside the Glenn Hotel, 404-222-7992, www.glennhotel.com.
Look for Meridith Ford's full review of Maxim Prime in next week's Living section of the AJC.
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