Watch Ron Hsu compete on Netflix’s international cooking series “The Final Table.” Notice his calm, unpretentious demeanor. Notice also Hsu’s focus and precision as he works with his mentor and teammate, Japanese chef Shin Takagi, to create edible plates that impress judges while staying true to self.
You can watch Hsu — and eat the food, too — when you come to Lazy Betty, his new restaurant in Candler Park. You ought to, because Hsu and his team are giving Atlanta some of the most dynamic food this city has seen since Staplehouse debuted in 2015. Like Staplehouse, it comes primarily in the form of a tasting menu, one that is far from stuffy, boring or trite.
The restaurant biz runs in Hsu's Malaysian-Chinese blood. His immigrant parents ran a Chinese restaurant in Stockbridge when he was growing up. (Lazy Betty is a tongue-in-cheek reference to his mother, Betty Hsu.) His siblings, Anita and Howard Hsu, are the faces behind Sweet Auburn BBQ and partners in this latest venture.
As you watch Hsu cook, plate and orchestrate in the open kitchen from your perch at the chef’s counter that doubles as the bar, you’ll see chef de cuisine and Lazy Betty partner Aaron Phillips, previously of Atlas at the St. Regis Atlanta hotel. The pair worked together for nearly four years at Le Bernardin, evidenced by the ease with which they share this Atlanta kitchen and core ideas about their craft: Dishes should reflect seasonality, consistency, sound techniques and be meaningful, whether by conveying a story or eliciting an emotion.
Emotion begins when the first plate is set before you and a satisfactory puff of steam escapes as you break open a house-made biscuit and spread it with kumquat butter.
An amuse-bouche or two is common. Salmon tartare resting on a midnight black puffed rice crisp is a one-bite wonder that takes seconds to eat, hours to prepare. That would entail adding squid ink to rice as it cooks, mashing down the grains, dehydrating it and then fashioning it into a crisp disk. It tastes ever so slightly of the sea, and is an appropriate vessel for the clean-tasting fish.
The sum of a dish should be greater than its parts. Like the tartare, cucumber cannelloni, the first in the seven-course tasting menu, adheres to this formula. Horseradish, cucumber and beets are a familiar ingredient combination, yet presented in a fresh, modernist arrangement. A long, mandoline-thin cucumber slice is wrapped tightly around a horseradish panna cotta filling, a springtime cigarillo; puffs of white fennel foam dot the plate like white clouds.
Causa, a layered potato casserole, respects the dish’s Peruvian origins, while taking it to new places. A salad of Georgia shrimp forms the base, followed by guacamole mousse bright with lime juice, then a blanket of aji potato foam that keeps the dish light and airy, breaking the mold of the heavy, dense tater. An exacting finish — tiny dabs of pepper relish, white cilantro blossoms and wispy green cilantro leaves — lends nuance to each spoonful.
Agnolotti with baby leeks was an ode to spring, but the herb emulsion that surrounded it sang of foam, overplayed after three successive plates.
Parmesan, too. The cheese was used to coat a braised romaine heart, but the crust quickly drooped upon the tableside pouring of a chicken-Parm-lemon broth. And the delicately cooked salmon paired with the lettuce couldn’t handle the assertiveness of the pungent, salty cheese.
A more cohesive composition: tender slices of American-bred White Pekin duck bathing in an Asian pool of hoisin jus and served with a sweet potato-daikon terrine. It’s a terrine in the loosest sense, but tightly packed all the same. The root vegetables are not molded together; rather, they are cut into thin, nearly translucent rectangles, then positioned one after the other, snugly, into a long row.
These are the details that make the progression of plates interesting. Color, flavor and texture combinations are all given consideration. Even the changing selection of servingware — some custom-pottery features Georgia’s red clay — keeps diners engaged.
Decor keeps diners at ease. The nondescript brick exterior belies an interior that regulars of its previous tenant, Radial Cafe, will find transformed into an airy, minimalist, calming space. A throw rests on the back of each wide-armed chair should you find yourself chilly. Pillows positioned along a cushioned banquette support your tired back.
The staff does its part to make guests feel at home. By the time your meal has ended, you’ll probably have been visited by every team member. One thing that feels out of place is the formality of mini Russian wait service. Theatrics turn comical by the seventh course.
Tasting menus can often be unbalanced in portion and price. The seven-course tasting menu here will leave you satiated, rather than hungry or uncomfortably full. Prices are inclusive of service, so $125 will be the exact total for the bill — unless you drink.
Cocktails run between $17 and $20. The Lazy Vesper is elegant and tasty, but I’d be just as content paying half the price for a well-executed classic at newly opened Lloyd’s down the street. I’ll stick to wine, which also doesn’t come cheap. By-the-glass offerings average $18, yet they are spunky, unique and food-friendly. Add $90 to pair vino with each course.
Caviar service and the snack-y a la carte menu offer tasty, pricey morsels, but not the same experience as the tasting menu.
What’s worth every penny is sous pastry chef Lindsey Davis’ rendition of a Creamsicle. A vanilla semifreddo is encased in a white chocolate shell and placed over a narrow sweet biscuit (the Popsicle stick?) and comes with a quenelle of blood orange sorbet and orbs of kumquat gelee. It’s not only a stunning presentation as well as a frozen sundry flavor explosion; the dessert brings the tasting menu full circle (remember that kumquat butter with the biscuit?). It’s a finale that would send any “Final Table” contestant to the next round.
Hsu didn’t make it to the final table in the cooking competition. But I’ll bet he’s willing to chat about that experience if you saddle up to the chef’s counter. One night, he approached as I was eating a snack of roasted romaine studded with sardines and Parmesan crumbs (a much-improved lettuce treatment compared to the drowned romaine-salmon duo on the tasting menu). He rested his arms on the counter, leaned in a bit, and told me what that dish meant to him: Warm, wilted greens are a fixture for Asian cuisines.
Hsu’s heritage is as much a part of his life story as having clocked time in formidable kitchens like Per Se, the French Laundry, Mini Bar, Le Colonial and Le Bernardin. That story unfolds, bite after bite, at Lazy Betty.
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: innovative, globally inspired dishes driven by technique and seasonality, available as a seven- or 10-course tasting menu or abbreviated a la carte snacks menu
Service: personable while still professional
Best dishes: Roasted Romaine, Boquerones, Parmesan Crumbs; Cucumber Cannelloni, Horseradish, Panna Cotta, Borscht; Georgia Shrimp Causa, Aji Potato Foam, Pepper Relish; "Creamsicle."
Vegetarian selections: Vegetarian tasting menu available upon request; Lazy Betty Biscuits and seasonal butter; Cucumber Cannelloni, Horseradish, Panna Cotta, Borscht; Spring Agnolotti, Baby Leeks, Herb Emulsion.
Price range: $$$$$ (service included in prices)
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: valet, some free lot parking, free street parking
MARTA station: Edgewood/Candler Park
Reservations: encouraged for tasting menu
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Patio: currently closed
Address, phone: 1530 DeKalb Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-975-3692
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