Is there a better fish for a hotel restaurant than the branzino? This pale white fish is delicate without being too fussy for the cook and rich without having a reputation for being oily or fatty. It goes mostly by the Italian name, though the French call it loup de mer. You’re free, I suppose, to call it European sea bass if you wish to stick with English.
In whatever language, it can be served whole without being too much for one person, is always in ample supply, and pleases almost anyone. The main flaw for branzino is really no fault of the fish. It is just that, in being so broadly palatable, the fish is also almost inevitably a bit boring. The same is often true for the hotel restaurant.
In any case, that was what I was thinking when I ordered the branzino at Allora, the new restaurant at the ground floor of Twelve Hotel Midtown in Atlantic Station. It arrived butterflied with the tail on but otherwise free of bones and head. The skin was crisp and marked with the thin black lines of a grill. A pile of green things was arranged across the top: broccoli florets, chopped Castelvetrano olives, and a thick tangle of micro greens. Capers and butter mingled in a rich pool below.
Did I wonder what those broccoli florets were really adding in this dish? Sure. Could the saltiness of the capers or the acidity of lemon have been more forceful? Maybe. But the pleasure of those perfect olives from Sicily and the moist richness of this fish express everything that makes Mediterranean food so easy to love. It is all about good ingredients that speak for themselves, neither gilded with too much fatty heaviness nor obscured by elaborate technique. What’s not to love?
No doubt that’s why menus like the one at Allora are so common these days. The white-tableclothed, cheese-drenched Italian-American joint has been obscured by something we tend to call “rustic Italian.” What exactly does “rustic” mean, aside from the fact that there are no tablecloths? Well, you’ll no doubt be reminded that the pastas are made in house, the antipasti are really just small plates that might be served at any contemporary restaurant, and the short list of “secondi” will almost certainly include a whole branzino.
When the ingredients are as stellar as those olives and branzino, it is hard to be disappointed, even if it is a familiar routine. When they’re not, well, there isn’t room for error. Take, for example, Allora’s bruschetta, which arrives piled high with a mild-flavored salad of crabmeat and some potent pickled yellow mustard seeds. The crab was fresh, though minced a little fine, and the pickled mustard seeds were bright. The rounds of bread, on the other hand, were soggy and weak, missing the strong crust good Italian bread should have. It made an otherwise fine dish entirely unappetizing.
A bowl of fried Brussels sprouts fared better, brightened as it was with white balsamic and aided by the crunch of toasted hazelnuts. The top layer of ricotta salata was sliced much too thick and was too cold to add the light, subtle salty kick it should have, but it was an inessential error, at least.
The pastas served here work well with the simplicity. Carbonara, which comes topped with a bright yellow yolk, is as rich as it should be, though I wanted for more flavorful pancetta. I was more impressed by the shrimp campanelle, a ruffled, conical pasta that arrives in a subtle glaze of preserved lemons, saffron and leeks that complements the sweet chunks of shrimp. At $10 for the half-portion, it may be the best deal on the menu.
I happened to be enjoying it with a $12 glass of nero d’Avola when I noticed a scrap of the foil cap floating in the bottom. I was struggling to fish it out with a knife when a waiter I hadn’t seen before wandered over. I assumed he might, I don’t know, wonder why I was fishing something out of my wine or apologize for the foil in glass. Instead, he said, “Don’t you know the trick? You just use a straw to suck it out,” left a straw on the table, and then wandered off again. Good service, I suppose, isn’t as simple as pasta.
On the other side of town at Apron, inside the newly minted Solis Two Porsche Drive hotel, the Mediterranean menu has plenty in common with Allora, but the results are rather different. There are house-made pastas and a few vaguely Italian small plates. A whole grilled branzino leads the list of entrees. Instead of rustic simplicity, Apron uses this Mediterranean influence as a starting point for complex dishes.
The octopus terrine was a sight to behold: a board loaded with a half-dozen thick, round slices of dark terrine with dots of the pale white flesh of the octopus floating inside. There are finely chopped olives, anchovies and almonds spooned on top and bright-orange dabs of smooth Romesco on the side. Yet, for all of that fuss, the flavors never really came together for me. The salty anchovy was obscured by the bland gelatin of the terrine. The Romesco needed a stronger punch of peppery heat.
A fillet of chermoula-rubbed striped bass, much fattier than the branzino, rested on a bed of mascarpone mousse that was supposed to be flavored by smoked eggplant. It tasted more like a bland, oily cream cheese. The plate was scattered with other elements: halved cherry tomatoes, pools of Meyer lemon sauce, dabs of decidedly not spicy harissa. There was, to be honest, nothing much to love about it.
You’d do much better with something simple from this menu. Try the asparagus risotto that, while nothing special, at least fulfills the creamy, comforting promise of starchy rice and green vegetables.
Like that risotto, the staff here made me feel at home. The restaurant was mostly filled with solo diners who, one assumes, would be catching a flight out of the airport next door early in the morning. The front of house is apparently familiar and adept at handling the customer who just wants to relax, linger over a drink, and kill an hour or two.
In warm weather, the patio with a view of Hartsfield-Jackson airport is a fine place to do that. Though the cocktails, like the ginger thyme blood orange sparkler, are a touch too sweet for my taste, sipping on one and watching the planes take off and land is rather pleasant. It isn’t quite a view of the Mediterranean, but it works.
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