On a recent Saturday night, the members of an exclusive, invitation-only group called the Elite Club convened for dinner at Mission and Market. As they arrived, the valet lined up their cars one by one in front of the glittering, 30-story Buckhead tower known as Three Alliance Center: candy-green Porsche, bright red Ferrari, silver-gray Bentley, and so on.
They walked by the thick white marble bar at the front of the restaurant and past the open kitchen where chef Ian Winslade stood, inspecting each dish as it crossed the pass. In the restaurant’s back dining room, a long table had been prepared before they had arrived. The club’s flag, which features two unicorns flanking a coat of arms, had been hung on the wall not far from a large cake decorated in the shape of a Ferrari logo that would be served for dessert. For dinner, most of the table ordered the steak and fries.
I happen to know all of this because I was sitting at the table closest to the club, directly facing the flag with the unicorns and the Ferrari-shaped cake. In other words, I couldn’t help but watch. I wasn’t exactly surprised that nearly everyone ordered the steak and fries. It is a safe, familiar dish, the sort that could be ordered at a dozen different restaurants within a very short Ferrari’s drive of Mission and Market with the reasonable expectation that none would be too different from the other.
<<RELATED: More metro Atlanta restaurant reviews
In a lot of ways, Mission and Market resembles those safe, familiar Buckhead restaurants. The setting, with a living moss wall and geometric lighting hanging from the ceiling, is luxurious and airy. The menu covers, more or less, every cliché of the current Buckhead restaurant style from the selection of crudo plates to the tentacle of grilled octopus to the local kale salad to the handful of obligatory small pizzas that every new restaurant seems to serve these days.
Anyone who regularly eats out at new restaurants in Buckhead knows this routine. The worst part about it, at least in my experience, is not the cynical, something-to-please-every-trend menu, but the fact that the cooking and service tend to be just as cynical. With a trendy menu like this, the Buckhead diner has come to expect a restaurant barely adequate enough to limp over the low bar of a two-star review.
All of which is to say, when my date and I sat down to our table on Saturday night, we did a quick scan of the predictable menu — the Asian-ish tuna dish, the trio of oysters, the watermelon salad — and prepared ourselves for a thoroughly adequate meal. Then a funny thing happened. The meal turned out to be great. Excellent, in fact. It wasn’t flawless — there were the hiccups in service that come along with large restaurants on busy Saturday nights — but the food was every bit as fine-tuned as the room it was served in.
A trio of dishes arrived first. There were three pickled oysters, served on the half shell, that had taken on the subtle complexities of Szechuan peppercorns and the bitter, vegetal qualities of the bright, green cucumber spooned atop each. The glass of Gotas de Mar Albarino I was drinking paired well with the oysters, adding a dry, acidic note. This is perhaps a divisive dish, one that might not please a diner expecting the familiar punch of mignonette. It caught my attention, right at the first bite of the meal, that this was the work of a chef attuned to the subtleties and possibilities of his ingredients. That impression rarely wavered throughout the night.
<<RELATED: Intown Atlanta dining news
Even more impressive was a dish of marinated American red snapper. Four slices of raw fish had been arranged on the plate in a rectangle the size of an iPhone, painted with a pale yellow gloss of yuzu emulsion, and decorated with red Fresno chiles and tiny basil leaves. The result was something flawlessly fine-tuned: velvety and rich but bright and focused by a very precise hit of heat.
Next to these two little, gemlike dishes, the watermelon salad looked like the well-worn, familiar option that it is. Yet, it accomplished exactly what it needed to do. The savory, creamy heft of mozzarella was served in equal measure to the ripe, sweet meat of watermelon to round out a generous, filling portion.
<<RELATED: Buckhead competes for luxe bucks
The entree of seared black sea bass that followed was an outright stunner. The two fillets were exquisitely seared, tender, and still moist. Creamy beet raita swooped across the plate like a thick bed of electric-pink paint. Roasted mushrooms and cauliflower added a savory depth. A tangle of shaved fennel and pea shoots on top completed the final, crunchy last touch.
I had assumed the charred albacore tuna, paired with a familiar combo of rice noodles and avocado, would be an afterthought, but I was surprised here, too. The salty-sweet brown sauce had been dialed in with the earthy bite of ginger. The noodles had been amended with the welcome crunch of julienned green papaya. The hunks of avocado were ripe and creamy. The dish was a cool pleasure.
It tells me something about Winslade that he has taken care and affection to a dish as obvious and worn-out as this one and tried to find little ways to elevate it to his standards of cooking. They are quite evidently high. Anyone who recalls his time at Murphy’s in Virginia-Highland, where he had a long run as executive chef, knows that. At Mission and Market, his kitchen is quite obviously cooking to please the Buckhead crowd, but they are cooking well and seriously. One marvels at what they might do with a less rigorously trendy menu.
At other meals, I’ve had that feeling reinforced. The cocktails are hit and miss. (Avoid the Above the Clouds at all costs.) Needless trendy items, like an eggplant-topped pizza, are adequate, fine. You certainly could order that or the cheddar-topped burger and fries. Neither are exactly bad. I wonder why you would, when you could get something like it almost anywhere else. They distract a little from the restaurant’s true strengths.
A charred tentacle of octopus served over an assertively spicy hazelnut romesco was exactly what I wanted it to be: smoky with an edge of blackened crust and just tender enough. I can’t count the times I’ve been served one of those delicate arms that have been ruined, either burned through and dry or chewy and untouched. Winslade’s rendition reminded me why I ever started ordering the dish in the first place.
This is a menu that lavishes seafood with the attention to detail, the respect and careful cooking that it deserves. That’s a rarity these days. Despite looking a lot like its peers, Mission and Market is an uncommon place, indeed.
Mission and Market
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Food: New American
Service: friendly and practiced
Best dishes: pickled oysters, red snapper, grilled octopus, black bass, roasted salmon
Vegetarian selections: several options
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 5-11 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Parking: valet parking
MARTA station: Buckhead
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: Three Alliance Center, 3550 Lenox Road, Atlanta. 404-948-2927
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.