I sat at the bar, settling into one of the most balanced Black Manhattans I’d tasted in a long time. It confirmed the sway I felt toward this bar program when I sipped its tequila-based Stately Hag a few nights earlier. My dining partner was equally content, enjoying the port and bourbon notes of his Staccato and the garnish of ground nutmeg floating in the coupe glass.
It was just after 5 p.m. Action at the shiny, azul-tiled bar hadn’t yet kicked into high gear.
“What’s up with the dinosaurs?” I asked the bartender, pointing to the collection of colorful toy figurines that line the top of the backbar.
“The owners are weird,” he said in the matter-of-fact, chill manner you should expect when you hang out in East Atlanta Village.
The random toy dinosaur collection at Banshee fits the character of this restaurant, one of the newest additions to the already eclectic EAV.
Banshee is a venture by four longtime friends, all of them industry veterans. Executive chef Nolan Wynn, general manager Peter Chvala and bar manager Faielle Stocco are former employees of Ford Fry Restaurants; bar manager Katie McDonald was a presence behind the bar at Wrecking Bar Brewpub. Together, they have fashioned a norm-defying restaurant that is unique even to this artsy neighborhood.
Banshee is the most upscale spot in this neck of the woods. Yet, it is still casual. A service staff wearing T-shirt and jeans is barely discernible among diners.
You could call the food here New American, but the label would be limiting, and Banshee doesn’t seem to be a place that wants or needs to be boxed in by labels.
“The concept is really driven by what is available, and a focus on those vegetables, and building everything around that,” Wynn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview last fall, soon after the restaurant debuted. “There’s not any specific style of cuisine we’re adhering to; we’re just using those ingredients and applying a lot of different techniques.”
Seasonality is the focus at Banshee, but the best dish on the menu is one that hasn’t changed since opening night: Fry Bread. Round disks of warm, deep-fried Native American flatbread are an unexpected change of pace from typical bread service. What takes it up a few notches is the accompanying pepperoni butter. A swipe of crisp, oily bread in this butter brought to my mind the same delightful flavor burst I get when biting into a Totino’s pizza roll, but without the fakeness that comes with processed food. This bread-and-butter combo, paired with a Banshee cocktail, make a trip here worth the while.
Fry Bread is one among a half-dozen starters on the menu. All of them will likely pique the curiosity of an adventurous diner. Whether they wow the taste buds in the way that the Fry Bread does is a different story.
Crunchy croutons disrupted an otherwise well-executed mozzarella ravioli appetizer.
A cold salad of grilled skirt steak and papaya salad, presented as a tightly rounded mold, like a tartare, quickly became a tangled mess of tropical fruit and butternut squash threads, and steak too cold to impart flavor. Additions of house-made crispy rice noodles and peanut brittle might look cool on paper or plate, but the flavors — let’s not forget the Thai chiles and nam pla fish sauce — were hardly cohesive.
The kitchen at Banshee reaches into the global pantry, be it using Middle Eastern spice blend zhoug with potatoes and squid, or 36 ingredients for a Mexican mole to match braised duck leg.
Sometimes, though, the parts (peanut brittle!) are better than the sum. And if a meal can be a symphony, with fluidity from course to course (at Banshee, that would be going from “Begin” to “Continue” to “Growing Now” to “Finish”), my meals were more of a cacophony. There isn’t harmony when you force your taste buds to keep up with a shift from Italian to Thai to Mexican to Chinese.
Certain “movements” did stand out. Pastas are made in-house. Despite sometimes being a bit too thick for my liking, the farfalle, which held a duo of lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms, and the lobster taglierini, which showcases bits of turf (chorizo) with the surf, were both still worth every penny.
The braised duck leg, with a lovingly prepared mole and mound of cilantro rice, merits the $27 price tag when you push aside a few of the many kumquat slivers that over-deliver on sour-tart notes. A spice-laden Pork Osso Buco was incredibly tender, the black bean sauce a delight to swipe with forkfuls of the meat or the accompanying side of broccoli.
In keeping with the seasons, Banshee offers a trio of seasonal sides. Unfortunately, none were better than what the home cook can accomplish in the kitchen: bland roasted potatoes, grilled Broccolini that tasted more of smoke than anything else, and chunks of curried sweet potatoes.
I’d hoped for a stronger finish with dessert. Fernet Gingerbread was dry, the hipster amaro barely discernible in the baked good. Another visit brought a choice between Macadamia Milk Panna Cotta and Salted Chocolate Tart. The bartender sold me on a panna cotta for its “badass” presentation. Two dove white rectangles dotted with matcha mint in a stone plate isn’t badass. The Italian custard was silky though, and as I brought each spoonful to my mouth, I tasted kitchen care.
At a time when the Atlanta dining scene is inundated with outside corporate restaurant groups or local names with big money to spend on their next restaurant project, the scrappy folks behind Banshee strike a chord. Their cocktail and wine menu is succinct, but with enough options to take you to sip from places you’ve not gone before. Their food menu challenges assumptions — not just about bread service, but what it means to dine out. There is joyspotting to be had in the uniqueness of some of their small plates. If you’re a three-course diner, this place pushes you to think about what makes sitting down for 90 minutes worth it. More than anything, Banshee seems to ask diners: What are you looking for?
So look around. Brick and concrete walls are decorated just enough to also make a statement, as is the floor-to-ceiling blue velvet curtain that separates dining room from bar, but that gets thrown back when a DJ takes the mic on weekend nights. Don’t forget the dinosaur collection.
We’re in East Atlanta Village. Expect, celebrate, be challenged by the unexpected.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: New American
Service: relaxed professionals in T-shirts and jeans
Best dishes: Fry Bread, Mushroom Farfalle, Pork Osso Buco
Vegetarian selections: Fry Bread, Mozzarella Ravioli, Watercress Salad, Mushroom Farfalle, side dishes
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Children: not recommended
Parking: free parking on streets and in rear lot
MARTA station: Inman Park
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Patio: open during warm weather
Takeout: not recommended
Address, phone: 1271 Glenwood Ave. SE, Atlanta. 470-428-2034
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