Marco Betti is no stranger to Atlanta’s restaurant landscape; he’s been wining and dining Atlantans Tuscan style for 10 years as the owner of Antica Posta, one of the city’s finest Italian restaurants.
In mid-July, he opened Joia (“gem” in Portuguese), having renovated the SAGA spot on Crescent Avenue into an elegant dining room with lots of hardwood floor space for late-night dancing. He hired up-and-comer Brett Maddox (who worked at Aria) as his chef, and with him designed a menu. It is part Antica Posta, part American bistro – with casual burgers and panini sharing space with flounder in lemon, caper and butter sauce.
Expansion can hurt, but it’s usually worth it. Still, two months after opening the restaurant is already experiencing some major growing pains. Betti’s plus is that he has a knack for the business, and understands how to tweak until he gets things right. His minus lies in expecting the Atlanta dining public and late-night dance crowd to be one in the same, as it often is in Europe.
Consequently, Joia suffers from a mildly split personality. In the early part of the evening, the well-groomed dining room, bathed in plush reds and black with giant windows overlooking the busy block, is a perfectly lovely little bistro. Just don’t look to the center of the room, where the massive empty space is quizzically off-putting. Later – and admittedly I never stayed late enough to observe – the room becomes a dance club with late-night nibbles.
I’m inclined to hope that therapy will bring personality number one to the surface, leaving personality number two submerged forever.
But gain comes with loss: in the two months since its opening, Maddox has already abandoned the effort, and Betti is close-lipped about who will replace him. As it stands, Betti’s brother, Alessandro Betti, is running things, with help from Antica Posta’s kitchen. That luscious-sounding flounder, still advertised on the written menu as “chef Brett’s signature,” is long gone.
What’s left is a hodge-podge of popular bistro-style dishes, from small nibbles to full-scale entrees, ranging in quality from not-so-good to darned nice. Example: the fried calamari seems to have taken a sad journey from a frozen food bag to the fryolater to the table, where a small portion of rings is accompanied by one obviously placed tendril for good measure. Yet the Caesar salad is as fresh and well-made as it is at Antica Posta. Whole romaine leaves in an anchovy-laced dressing with shards of Parmesan and house-made croutons are fresh and fulfilling.
The servers, who are quick to point out the restaurant’s Antica Posta pedigree, steered me from the flounder dish and offered halibut instead. Pan-seared and a little over-cooked, I longed for the flounder. Or at least for what I thought the flounder might be like.
Pasta is something that Betti et al could cook blindfolded, with or without a split personality, and gemelli (which, incidentally, means “twin” in Italian), with its perfect al dente chew, is a simple, delightful dish with prosciutto, green peas and fresh cream. Mussels in white wine sauce laden with butter and garlic show the kitchen’s better side, too, especially with fat slices of focaccia for dipping.
Even Joia’s name is a head-scratcher, since there’s nothing Portuguese on the menu.
At the moment, I’m more inclined to call the restaurant “The Three Faces of Eve” and hope that Betti – who, from phone conversations and emails with me is clearly committed to making this concept work – gets the personality kinks out soon.
Joia, 1100 Crescent Avenue, Atlanta
Food: Italian/American bistro/lounge
Service: Experienced servers with solid knowledge of the menu
Price range: $$
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover
Hours of operation: Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to midnight Tuesday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2.30 a.m. Friday; 4 p.m. to 2.30 a.m. Saturday.
Best dishes: Caesar salad, gemelli with peas and prosciutto, mussels, braised short ribs, tiramisu
Vegetarian selections and special needs: Seasonal vegetables, side dishes
Children: For lunch only
Parking: Adjacent lots and on-street
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: After 11 p.m.
Noise level: Medium
Address, telephone: 1100 Crescent Avenue, Atlanta, 404-537-5000
Web site: www.joiaatlanta.com
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.
Key to AJC ratings
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.
Food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
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