30 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., Atlanta
0 of 4 stars
There’s a speakeasy vibe at Scales 925, which is a funny thing to say about a restaurant that looms so large over Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard. (It’s in the old French American Brasserie space.)
A shadowy retreat, this joint is not. The scrolling metalwork in the entry, the towering gold velvet banquettes, the sparkling black underbelly of a twirling staircase and the many, many chandeliers — you can see all this glitter from a distance.
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And, yet, Scales feels like a secret. Despite its grandeur, the feel here is cozy, chill and, most of all, clubby. Of course, as with all celebrity-backed restaurants, that ease is electrified by the possibility of a Sighting.
The celeb in this case is rapper T.I. That’s his birthday and zodiac sign in the restaurant’s name. His police mug shot, along with those of Jay Z, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and a half-dozen others, hangs in a collage over the bar, superimposed with the quote, “Sometimes things have to go wrong in order to go right.”
During my two visits to Scales, these were the only subtle signals of T.I.’s influence. And, no, he wasn’t there.
What I did find was an excellent soundtrack — vintage jazz standards at dinner, mellow soul at lunch — that made me want to stay awhile, sunk into one of the clamshell booths that face the dining room. They’re the sort of tufted display cases for which the term “holding court” was invented. (It’s no surprise that Scales plans to offer club memberships later this year, affording paying VIPS a private entrance and storage for their personal booze and cigar stashes.)
Maybe this loungey sensibility explains Scales’ very slow, scattered service.
But I can’t think of an excuse for its pretty terrible food.
Scales 925’s cuisine feels like the delightfully over-the-top décor gone sour. (Though sour really isn’t the right term, since the primary problem with our food was an excess of sugar.) The dishes are architectural — meatloaf molded into a muffin, a parade of oysters on a foot-long plate, shrimp and grits puddled in the basin of what looks like an enormous spoon.
But the quality rarely lives up to the fanfare with which the food is served.
I found myself looking for the flavors described on the menu and coming up empty. I searched for just a hint of peachiness in the peach-glazed salmon, the essence of sweet potato in the sweet potato waffle, the aroma of basil in the fried green tomato caprese salad. But those ingredients were too scant to taste and they were further drowned out by sugar.
Way too much sugar.
We all know a dash of the white stuff is one of Southern food’s wonderful little secrets. But the sugar should do its flavor-spiking work in the background. If you can taste the sweetness in collard greens, for instance, the chef has gone too far.
And, oh, you can taste it in Scales’ collards. It’s a double shame, because this side was otherwise lovely. The greens were well-cooked, with a hint of crunch, and they were also, hallelujah, spicy in a sea of blandness. So, the oversweet aftertaste was heartbreaking, especially when my mouth was already coated by the cloying mashed sweet potatoes that accompanied our apple-glazed pork chop, and creamed corn that seemed to make up for sparse corn kernels by sugaring up the abundant cream.
So, there was the oversweet (add to this category the syrupy balsamic reduction on our watermelon-feta salad). And there was the oversimplified, such as mac-and-cheese that was little more than noodles topped with a pancake of melted cheddar, and a cobbler of canned peaches so soft and slimy they were practically indistinguishable from the tasteless pale syrup in which they swam.
Desperate, I found myself grasping at whatever well-seasoned straws Scales offered.
One of these was the shrimp and grits. Forget that the shrimp were a touch overcooked and the grits so richly buttered it was hard to eat more than a few bites. In the zippy, silky sauce, at last, there was flavor that struck more than one mediocre note, that lit up on the tongue.
There also were blue-cheese-strewn fried oysters that, while a touch mushy, were fresh and seasoned — at least, if you avoided their accompanying buffalo sauce, which tasted like nothing more than Tabasco gummed up, then watered down.
The large banana pudding, though chalky in some parts and runny in others, was a little bit irresistible, if only for its strong flavor of actual banana. Don’t scoff that such things should be taken for granted — the lemonade we ordered with lunch (which, by the way, arrived long after our appetizers) was clearly made from powdered mix.
For every passable dish like the shrimp and oysters, there was a stinker. The pork chop that came with those over-sweet sweet potatoes was thin, gamy and leached of any porky flavor by overcooking. The molded meatloaf was grainy and tasted like nothing more than its garnish of bitter barbecue sauce. And the salmon had a fishiness that was almost highlighted by its tasteless sauce, rather than masked by it.
“Sometimes things have to go wrong in order to go right.” On the wall, that’s a beautiful work of art, one that adds to the appeal of a great place to hang with a glass of champagne or cognac. But, on the plate, this restaurant has a long way to go to go right.