Ah, the Great Perimeter Debate. With restaurant reviews, I’ve tried to avoid skirmishes that pit intown Atlantans against those who live outside I-285 by pointing out elements that make an establishment appealing to diners, no matter their zip code or that of the restaurant. I’m having a hard time doing so with Noble Fin.
Noble Fin opened in Peachtree Corners this past May. It is of interest in the dining circuit because it’s a new restaurant from Jay Swift, who had a more than eight-year run with his well-respected Old Fourth Ward fine-dining concept 4th & Swift, until closing it this past July. So, a talented chef was setting up shop outside the Perimeter. That made news.
In an interview this summer, Swift told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution why he opened Noble Fin in Gwinnett County. “There’re not too many places in Atlanta right now that aren’t saturated with restaurants. You have to go where the opportunities are, and the city of Atlanta is so saturated.”
He continued, “The main reason we’re here is, it’s a great area. It’s a growing area, and they needed something like us. We say we’re trying to bring a little bit of the city to the suburbs, and in one sense we’re doing that, but, more than anything, we’re bringing the suburbs to our concept.”
As a fish and seafood restaurant, nautical-themed decor is probably expected, but at Noble Fin it is ornamentation without ostentation. Reminders of water are subtle yet intriguing, like the wooden boat frame that hangs unobtrusively above the pass at the open kitchen or, in a side dining room, the mural of a boat painted from a perspective that makes you ponder.
One dish above all others felt very much within this subtle-yet-intriguing current: yellow fin tuna crudo, each cube super fresh and picking up umami-rich flavor when passed through a smear of the citrusy Japanese chile paste yuzu kosho.
Swift does his native Baltimore proud with broiled crabcake. The mix didn’t chintz on meat.
The filler-to-seafood ratio was spot on; the patty wasn’t the least dry, rather, it was flavorful and fatty, yielding a delicate, tender cake. Dipping forkfuls into the house-made tartar sauce, our table devoured this dish.
The crabcake is among a dozen small plates, the most interesting section of the menu to explore. Crispy oysters were nicely battered and fried, but what boosted their flavor and appearance was a pool of orange-tinged Aleppo chili hollandaise and the greenery of broad beans and a few fresh watercress leaves.
The components on these plates, and the plating itself, make clear that this kitchen is chef-driven and willing to experiment. In fact, on one visit our waiter pointed out that a lobster wedge salad had just been put on the menu that evening to gauge interest as to whether it should land permanently on the lunch menu. (Lunch service was to begin Sept. 1.) While iceberg lettuce and grapefruit segments offered crunch and juice, the lobster and a thin avocado dressing contributed little flavor; the dish lacked pop.
Far better was a tomato salad of ripe red and golden wedges topped with thinly shaved fennel, pea shoots and a quick shower of grated ricotta salata. A gorgeous melon gazpacho sauce united this thoughtful vegetarian dish.
The pan-roasted branzino was the fish entree that I most appreciated for pushing boundaries. Butterflied with the tail and crispy skin still on, and gussied up with frisse, the combination of two sauces — a smoked eggplant puree and harissa dripping off cranberry beans — was unexpected and delicious.
Black grouper, though, got the all-around medal for flavor, the delicate flesh resting in a pool of corn butter with oven-dried tomatoes, whole cipollini onion roasted to coax out sweetness, and wilted spinach that fared far better than when ordered as a side dish.
Noble Fin has turf selections for those who turn a nose up at surf. A 14-ounce New York strip ordered medium rare was fine enough; likewise, medallions of pan-roasted duck breast. They were not extraordinary.
Mixed drinks were hit-or-miss. The Noble Collins is a simple combination of gin, lemon and lime juice and seltzer, but the measurements were perfect. Port of Call is calling bourbon-drinkers who want a tall drink; peach ginger beer keeps things refreshing.
Avoid the Flamingo Drive. Vodka, pink grapefruit juice and pointless Chambord — there’s not much going on in this hollow drink. And the restaurant’s riff on a Manhattan, Knife in the Water, is an unattractive murky brown.
Beer drinkers, though, can rely on one of the all-local craft beers on tap, and with more than 30 wines available by the glass — and more in bottles — the wine crowd will be taken care of here.
But, let’s talk about taking care of customers. On my first visit, service that began amicably casual turned nervous and overly attentive when I was recognized soon after taking a seat. So, I guess it’s justified that the water in my glass rarely dropped an inch before someone rushed to refill it, or that the question “How is everything?” was asked more times than I can count.
The second visit, however, left something to be desired. It was a Saturday night and the restaurant steadily began to fill up. Around the time we had waited nearly 30 minutes for entrees, our server came by, picked up the wine bottle and was about to top our glasses. I stopped him. “We’ll enjoy the rest of it when our entrees get here.” His reply: “That’s when I open another bottle.”
Ha, ha. No, that’s when you explain why our food still isn’t here. And when you finally bring out three entrees for our party of four, perhaps you explain why my lobster roll isn’t among them, or at least offer reassurance that it hasn’t been forgotten. (Though generous in portion, the roll is forgettable in flavor.)
What shattered the dining mystique was when the server again mentioned “the sell.” He gave the dessert spiel. We’ll talk it over, agreed my table. “Ah, as soon as I walk away, I’ve lost the sale,” he responded. Half-hearted joke or not, that chatter is better reserved for training sessions.
The comment left a sour taste that wouldn’t go away, despite the deliciousness of a truffle brownie with toasted coconut ice cream. The long drive home gave me time to figure out what to say to the ITP and OTP camps.
You live intown and already have a go-to place for high-quality fish and seafood? Don’t worry about making the haul out to Peachtree Corners. But neighbors of Noble Fin should check out the new kid on the block.