Pieces of Saltyard puzzle don’t fit quite right

Humor me for a minute. Close your eyes and envision the last time you sat down with your favorite dish. Maybe it was a steaming bowl of fresh tagliatelle swirled with a sherry-laced mushroom cream sauce. First bite? Amazing. Second bite, oh yes.

Once you hit bites three, four and five, you’re just attempting to re-create that first moment when the sauce unfolded on your palate and your teeth slid into the pasta. Bite one is always the best (or worst, as the case may be). After that, you fall victim to taste fatigue, much like the olfactory fatigue you experience after repeatedly sniffing a wine’s bouquet.

Enter the small plate. In recent years, we’ve seen restaurants expand their selections of bar snacks and appetizer portions as the food-fond gravitate toward these items, often forgoing entrees in favor of sharing a slew of bitty bites.

Capitalizing on this trend, Saltyard opened earlier this summer with a small-plate-heavy menu. Watershed’s new neighbor in the Brookwood Condo building on Peachtree Road emphasizes the social dining experience with what it calls unpretentious and value-driven fare.

The restaurant’s name references the social nature of the small-plate dining experience. In ancient cultures where salt was a valuable commodity, it was given as a peace offering and symbol of friendship.

Saltyard’s concept stands in contrast to that of La Grotta, the classic Atlanta Italian restaurant opened 34 years ago by Saltyard co-owner Christian Favalli’s father, Sergio. Along with his wife, Kristy Jones-Favalli, and chef/partner Nick Leahy, Favalli has created a restaurant with a more convivial atmosphere and casual, if seemingly unfinished, interior.

Leahy, who has worked for both Concentrics and Fifth Group Restaurants, says that his style is “straightforward, not too fussy” and that he limits dishes to two or three flavors per plate. He sources locally when possible, bringing in items like charcuterie from Pine Street Market and cheeses from CalyRoad Creamery.

At first glance, Saltyard seems to have all the pieces for a great restaurant: shareable small plates, 20 wines (mostly domestic) by the glass for perfect course pairings, a commitment to honest cooking, local sourcing. Yet, Saltyard remains a puzzle. All those pieces don’t assemble the perfect picture. The logistics of coursing muddle the experience, and the food is perhaps a little too unpretentious, a little too straightforward — the two dangers of small plates.

A chef faces the challenge of packing flavors into a few shared bites, with little margin for error. At Saltyard, some dishes feel flat while others could use a little mix and match. With a few tweaks, they could be on to something.

The kitchen also needs to manage the experience by coursing the plates. Saltyard takes a pass, expecting diners to order in waves. Take heed: If your initial order consists of seven or so small plates, as ours did, be prepared for them to flood the table at random intervals. Dishes float out one by one as they are ready.

Servers are well trained to pull plates quickly, but become befuddled when trying to place the fifth dish to come out in four minutes on a small table for two. On one visit, we took pity on the poor souls peering at us in panic while devising ways to wedge in yet another dish. We put down our forks and shuffled plates, pushing the components of one to the side to make room for a buddy.

That’s how we discovered a way to boost the flavor of the soft and light pan-seared ricotta gnocchi ($10). We traded the vapid Parmesan-rind-infused vegetable broth for the rich brandy-cream sauce luxuriating with a melange of mushrooms over a thick slice of buttery brioche ($9).

This mix-and-match strategy also works well with dessert. Pull the fat curl of candied lemon peel and thick ribbons of caramel sauce from the crumbly lemon polenta cake ($6) and pair them with the chocolate fest of the flourless chocolate nemesis ($6). Those give the fudgy round more pop than the whipped cream and orange slices.

Similarly, other dishes could use a few minor tweaks. Let’s scale way back on the seasoning for the very snackable local pork cracklings ($4), heavy with salt and chili powder. Lighten up on the danish blue cheese obliterating the sweetness of the figs and honey on the bruschetta ($5). And let’s bump up the slick lemon, anchovy and caper vinaigrette on the seared Brussels sprouts ($6).

Maybe we need to rethink serving the bold Sriracha mignonette on the oysters, making it impossible to linger over the sweet seawater liquor of the bivalves and savor the merroir of York River and Rigby Island ($2 each). And if the house-cured salmon on the potato crisps ($7) were sliced thinner, the chewiness wouldn’t overtake the light, lemon-scented mascarpone.

No tinkering required for the grilled lamb loin ($11). The harissa-marinated lamb strikes a perfect balance with the creamy white bean puree drizzled with harissa oil. Ditto for the pistachio semifreddo ($6). A scoop of frozen mousse, heady with the flavors of almond and pistachio, melts into a puddle of dark chocolaty sauce with plump brandy-soaked cherries. Yes, let that one be.

As we trend more toward small-plate dining and wine-by-the-glass sampling, the corollary in beverages, Saltyard has timed its market entry just right. Now with a few adjustments and a little more attention to detail, it could become an Atlanta destination for a more social, shareable dining experience.

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