Review: Slick tables, bland food at CO on Highland Avenue

At my first meal at CO, a new red neon-lit restaurant on Highland Avenue, I ordered the beef pho. I could have ordered so many other things. The menu is quite long and varied, ranging from the oshizushi-style pressed sushi rolls favored in Osaka, Japan, to the greasy, rich noodles fried up in the streets of Bangkok, Thailand, to beef and kimchi dumplings that might suggest Seoul, South Korea. But if a restaurant serves pho, that deliriously comforting and classic Vietnamese dish, I want to order it.

In part, that’s because I love pho, but it is also because pho is a telling dish, much like a cheeseburger. Often times, a cheeseburger can tell you almost everything you need to know about a restaurant. How carefully have they selected the bun? What standards of quality do they have for their beef? Is the kitchen trying to dazzle with a high stack of sophisticated accouterments? Or is the chef focused on the classic pleasures of cheese and pickles? The answers to those questions will often tell you quite a lot about everything else coming out of the kitchen.

All the same is true of pho, the beef, broth, noodles and herbs. When a bowl of it arrived at CO, I quickly noticed a few things. First, the very thin sheets of sliced beef, always to be served rare and floating on top, had all been completely cooked through well before the bowl was delivered. It was a simple mistake — perhaps the result of the dish lingering too long under the heat lamp of the kitchen pass — but not one typically made by a kitchen serious about pho. I might not have noticed it quite as much if the herbs served on the side — Thai basil and cilantro — weren’t so dried out and sorry-looking as well.

The broth was beefy, darker than average, and well spiced with the typical aromatics of cinnamon and star anise. The vermicelli noodles were the classic, thin rice noodles one expects. How was it? Pretty good, I guess. Like cheeseburgers or pizza, even when pho is bad, it is still pretty good. But I could point you to a dozen different bowls of pho in strip malls all around this city that easily outshine it.

CO is a chain with seven locations scattered throughout the Carolinas, Florida and Georgia. The dining rooms are notable for slick, clean design touches: dim lights, bright red booths, minimalist modern tables. This Atlanta location, part of a glossy new mixed-use apartment building, positively glows with thin red neon bulbs and dark glass. But for all of that polished new construction, CO offers a menu that’s rough around every edge.

Nearly every dish I tried missed the mark. Those beef and kimchi dumplings were densely packed in thick wrappers, so much so that they were tough and doughy. I expected a punch of flavor from the slurry of sambal chile broth they were swimming in, but it was more like a weak tap.

The green papaya salad, at least the night I tasted it, was an outright misnomer. Instead, it was a sweet mélange of mostly minced cabbage, cubed pork, peanuts and shrimp. Where was the acidic punch of lime juice? What happened to the heat of a bird’s eye chile or the funk of fish sauce? Most importantly, where had the julienned strands of unripe papaya gone?

I was curious, though wary, to try one of the “infused sake” flavors that CO makes in house. So, I inquired with my server if the lemongrass sake was on the sweet side. She assured me it was very refreshing, not too sweet at all, and then delivered a sweet glass of something that I can only compare to a lemon drop shot in a college bar. The upside is that CO offers very affordable drink specials throughout the week. The downside is that the $3 carafe of sake tastes like what you paid for it.

Of course, we haven’t even touched on CO’s sushi offerings yet. They mostly tend toward the style of over-complicated Americanized rolls that stuff in too many ingredients to appreciate any one flavor. For one option, you can have thin strips of seared Kobe beef wrapped around a roll of cream cheese, avocado, masago and fried jalapeno. The result is as goopy and muddled as it sounds.

You’d be much better off with a plate of salmon carpaccio, which manages to be simple and pleasant aside from the odor of truffle oil.

There’s something confusing to me about the way this menu (and others like it) treats the myriad of distinct cuisines throughout Southeast Asia. If a chef decided to do North American food, would a menu of Montreal-style poutine, Floridian fish tacos, Midwestern casseroles and Californian grain bowls make much sense? I’m not sure why putting pho, sushi and pad thai on the same menu should be regarded any differently. Why not just get one of them right?

I didn’t want to have such a stodgy opinion, to be so focused on the authenticity this restaurant lacks. That’s why I ordered the Vietnamese ramen. The vermicelli was switched for egg noodles, the beef was replaced by pork, the herbs swapped with bok choy, and a poached egg was dropped on top. Reader, I slurped up broth and noodles. I had a bite of egg. I tried to understand why anyone would do this. Yet, it still did not make a bit of sense to me.


CO

11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 675 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. 404-474-0262, eatatco.com.

Recommended dishes: Beef pho.