My 20-year-old son recently made rabbit cacciatore for his college dorm friends. I doubt that the kid, who worked prep one summer at St. Cecilia in Buckhead, would have the gumption to cook wild game if he hadn’t spent time in a professional kitchen led by a chef like Craig Richards.
In Richards’ 22-year career — the last 15 spent in Atlanta running the kitchens at La Tavola and Ecco, followed by four and a half years with Ford Fry Restaurants, leaving as its director of culinary operations in 2018 to form a partnership with restaurateur Billy Streck at Hampton & Hudson — he’s amassed the culinary and leadership skills to mentor plenty of workers hungry to improve.
When you walk in the door at Richards’ new restaurant Lyla Lila, it’s evident that he’s assembled a team motivated to deliver his vision for an upscale restaurant and bar focused on modern southern European cuisine and in a setting as elegant as the Fox Theatre, its neighbor across the street.
The vision is highly personal for Richards. After all, it marks the first time that he has an ownership stake. The restaurant is even named after his 13-year-old daughter Lyla (and biz partner Streck’s daughter, whose middle name is Lila).
Velvet curtains in the entryway open to a dimly lit U-shaped bar with wood paneling and glass bar back that recall an era of jazz, one of Richards’ favorite musical genres because, like the daily operation of a restaurant, it lends itself to experimentation and improvisation. It is in this bustling room where well-heeled people pregame before a show or wind down after work while records spin on a turntable.
The design of the main dining room speaks to his interest in art. Clusters of bulbous globes hang suspended from the high ceiling. White walls are accented with calm abstract pieces and an assembly of wooden spoons that dangle like chimes. Natural light spews through expansive windows. It’ll remind you of a modern art gallery.
A captivating stage isn’t enough. A show needs a strong cast. Here, confident servers will offer suggestions among beverage manager Angela Guthmiller’s aperitivo cocktails to open your palate, like the bright and light One Down, One Up, or for drinks that will dazzle your eyes, like the Monk’s Repose featuring gin and a frothy shaken egg white or the mezcal-based I’m in a Dancing Mood with a slender sprig of fresh thyme running the length of the Collins glass. They will be balanced and delicious.
When you say, “I hear you have an impressive wine list,” that server will proudly note that Guthmiller’s selection highlights bio-dynamic and natural wines by European producers. And if you stare at that list filled with unpronounceable labels and makers, unfamiliar varietals and regions, thinking to yourself that a one-line description for each sure would be of help, your server will cordially ask what you like, steer you toward something and offer a taste.
Drinks delivered, your well-versed server will walk you through a menu of starters, of pastas that have become Richards’ calling card since the days he trained under Lidia Bastianich at her restaurants in Kansas City (Missouri, not Kansas) and Pittsburgh, and of mains and vegetable sides, pausing along the way to point out personal and crowd favorites.
I will join the chorus in singing the praises of appetizers like wedges of wood-grilled lettuce draped in a yogurt dressing with tiny nibs of crunchy thyme croutons. And of grilled octopus tentacles tender enough to cut with the side of a fork. Also, sturdy arancini filled with pork and cheese and rolled in a dusting of fennel pollen, but not the glop of aioli alongside it that looked like an unceremonious mound of Cheez Whiz.
I expected more assertion from an aioli swirled with Castelvetrano olive puree, and more happiness from the seasonal crudités to dip in it. The portion of preemie-sized baby carrots and beets was dinky, and their green tops were wilted and sad.
The portion is my only gripe with a single cold-smoked giant scallop sliced into three thin disks and encircled by a subtly spicy green harissa and triangles of cracker-like Sardinian flatbread known as pane carasau, which translates to “sheet music bread” because of its paper-thinness.
A wood-fired grill is a workhorse at Lyla. It’s used for that scallop starter, imbuing the delicate seafood with smoky flavor. But smoked apple didn’t progress an entree of juicy roast chicken. Whole grilled red snapper came with no crispness to the skin. Although its flaky flesh was not overcooked, it tasted ashy. The romesco sauce flecked with more black char did it further disservice. Instead, go for the grouper.
Stay for the pasta. It is the star of the show. No matter how you like your pasta — stuffed or baked, cut straight and long or into short, twisted shapes — you can find it here, made in-house, and served on hot plates.
Stuffed pasta dishes, in particular, are impressive, the dough rolled to an exacting thickness in ratio with the filling, be that kabocha squash, chicken liver and sweet potato with a scatter of pine nuts or, my favorite, braised beef and black truffle.
Try many plates by ordering preemie portions. Although not listed on the menu, these are roughly 60% the size of a full portion for $5 less. It’s not cheap — you’re still talking $23 for half a dozen beef ravioli and $17 for four kabocha squash tortelli — but it is cheaper. More so if you go at lunch.
What is nicely priced? Crispy lasagna. For $29, you get a huge portion (that makes for stellar leftovers) of 13 pasta sheets (13 to denote Lyla’s age when the restaurant unlocked its doors in December) coated in a savory duck ragu and creamy bechamel with a hint of cocoa powder. The trick to the crisp for this duck rendition of lasagna Bolognese: Once the lasagna has baked and cooled, your portion is dredged in 00 flour, fried to give it more crunch, then baked for a hot minute to melt the added sprinkle of Parmesan. No overly dry or wet, slippery noodles here; this divine dish holds its shape with each stab of the fork.
Perhaps because the pasta was so impressive, and the dinner menu intriguing, dessert was a letdown. Apart from a (not spicy) spice cake with a satsuma anglaise, the final act brought sugar rather than creativity.
Yet, in its opening weeks, Lyla Lila has delivered plenty of delicious scenes. Lucky for us, the show is just getting started. And Richards is directing.
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Southern European, with focus on Italian
Service: Confident, well-informed and cordial
Setting: Chic bar and dining room as well appointed as an art gallery in Fox Theatre district
Best dishes: Wood-grilled lettuce. Grilled octopus. Crispy lasagna. Kabocha squash tortelli. Braised beef and black truffle ravioli. Grouper. Acorn squash.
Vegetarian selections: Bread with house butter. Wood-grilled lettuce. Seasonal crudité. Kabocha squash tortelli. Casarecce (twisted pasta). Black Venere rice. Cauliflower. Acorn squash. Salt-roasted sweet potatoes. Off-menu vegetable plate available upon request.
Price range: $$$-$$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. Fridays; 5-11 p.m. Saturdays; 5-10 p.m. Sundays
Children: not recommended
Parking: limited metered street parking; nearby paid lots; valet coming soon
MARTA station: North Avenue
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: above average in bar; average in dining room
Patio: to open once weather permits
Address, phone: 693 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-963-2637