The restaurant is divided into two impressive rooms. To the right is a more casual bar known as the club room, a detailed, modern design full of hard angles, high ceilings and TVs tastefully hidden in mirrors. To the left is the proper dining room, an impressively textured composition of curved leather booths, flowing white tablecloths and a recessed ceiling that suggests the grand room of a luxe ocean liner. The kitchen is run by executive chef Damon Wise, a somewhat high-profile hire who relocated from New York to be culinary director of Hopkins’ restaurant group.
A divided restaurant is unfortunately apt for C. Ellet’s, a restaurant that has thrilled, disappointed, pleased and confounded me during my recent meals, sometimes all in the same night.
To begin with, though, this is a restaurant that does offer some excellent, uncomplicated pleasures. No matter which room you dine in, begin with a few oysters. You’ll find a smart list of options including White Stones, farmed in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, that emerge on chilled platters, flawlessly shucked in pristine deep cups, their meaty oyster flesh balanced between salty and sweet. A dozen of those is a great excuse to linger over a glass of Landron Atmospheres, a lovely dry, sparkling wine.
Even with the impressiveness of the raw bar aside, there are more pleasures from the sea to be found here. I found a bowl of Sapelo Island clams piled in a buttery broth with crumbles of sausage and thin colorful slices of peppers to be a fine, filling dish maybe even worth making a meal of. I might have been even more impressed, though, had I not tasted it alongside the New Orleans barbecue shrimp. Peeled, head-on shrimp are drenched in a rich, complex, spicy butter sauce as dark as the darkest roux that any grandmother in Louisiana would make. My eyes rolled back into my head from the very first bite.
From the soundtrack to the photos on the walls of the dining room, C. Ellet’s has an affectation for upscale New Orleans style. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason for it, but when tasting those barbecue shrimp between sips of the sweet, strong rum Sazerac, I couldn’t care less about reason. New Orleans tastes good, which is reason enough.
Things get less consistent from there. Take, for instance, the Benton’s bacon appetizer. When it arrived at our table one night in the dining room, we were greeted by a single, not particularly thick slice of bacon served with a small handful of kohlrabi coleslaw, and a roundish smear of barbecue sauce for $15.75. I could not help but start asking myself questions. Was the slice of bacon perfectly cooked? It was. Did the combination of that rich, salty, smoky bacon with slaw and tangy sauce re-create the experience of a fatty barbecue sandwich on a plate? It did. Was that experience somewhat hindered by a price tag roughly equivalent to 2 pounds of Benton’s bacon for a single slice? Yes, that too.
As I said before, Hopkins has apparently spared no expense to build this place. If you plan to really experience the menu, it may help to think of the check at the end of the night the same way.
Not that there isn’t a deal or two to be had on the menu. One night at the bar, a friend and I split a burger and an unusually butchered 8-ounce flank steak from a cross of Tajima and Angus cattle. The menu describes it as a “eureka cut.” The steak was, in fact, surprisingly tender at the center for a cut of flank steak, deeply flavored and modestly priced. The thick burger, packed with plenty of dry-aged flavor, cost scarcely more than that single slice of bacon.
If you do decide to spend freely on one of those lavishly described steaks, your results may vary. One night in the dining room, a date and I ordered a bone-in “cowgirl” rib-eye and the dry-aged Kansas City strip. Both arrived with admirable, blacked char, garnished with thyme and butter-soft cloves of garlic. What lavish attention to detail. Yet, the Kansas City strip had been cooked to medium well, rather than medium rare as ordered, and the rib-eye had the grainy texture of a budget cut, but not the price tag. To our waitress’s credit, she whisked away the overcooked steak, replaced it as quickly as possible, and, despite my protests to the contrary, took it off the bill.
In the end, the gesture was mostly reassuring. The staff mostly seems to understand that they’re still a work in progress, not a seasoned steakhouse. It would have been more reassuring had my other experiences with service been more reliable.
On a good night, a question to your server as simple as “Why is the Caesar salad described as ‘Aviator’s Salad’?” may prompt your waitress to offer a brief history of the Caesar salad, a sometimes disputed account involving pilots, Prohibition and the Mexican border, that leads to an explanation as to why the Caesar is made with lime juice instead of lemon at C. Ellet’s.
On the other hand, on a weekday night in the club, a question as leading as “Is there a glass of Tempranillo on the menu?” may only prompt your bartender to nod, turn his back and return with a full glass. No matter that there are actually two glasses of Tempranillo on the menu. Don’t expect to be offered a taste to see which you prefer. I wonder what would have happened if my steak had been overcooked on a night like that.
The staff has a similarly disturbing habit of removing appetizers before they’re finished. I almost lost my unfinished plate of barbecue shrimp, those all-important bites of sopping bread in sauce, to an aggressive midmeal plate clearing. Of course, I only cared because the sauce was so good. Such is the situation at C. Ellet’s: a divided restaurant, but a tasty one nevertheless.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: steakhouse and raw bar
Best dishes: raw oysters, barbecue shrimp, eureka cut flank steak, dry-aged burger
Vegetarian selections: few
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Children: not recommended
Parking: garage parking
MARTA station: none
Reservations: available online and by phone
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: lively
Address, phone: 2605 Circle 75 Parkway, Atlanta. 678-996-5344