Split personalities at Emory Village spot


INK & ELM

Overall rating: INK: 1 of 5 stars, ELM: 2 of 5 stars

Food: modern American with Southern influences

Service: Both sides have servers that are helpful but laid-back.

Best dishes: Ink: ricotta gnocchi; Elm: brick-cooked chicken

Vegetarian selections: Ink: cheeses; Elm: salads, vegetable plate, sides

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Price range: Ink: $$-$$$, Elm: $$$

Credit cards: all major credit cards

Hours: Ink: 7 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Fridays, 4 p.m.-midnight Saturdays-Sundays. Elm: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays.

Children: Best at Ink, but OK for either. Ask about the unprinted children's menu.

Parking: shared lot behind restaurant or valet Tuesdays-Saturdays beginning at 6 p.m.

Reservations: yes for Elm, no for Ink

Wheelchair access: yes

Smoking: no

Noise level: moderate

Patio: no

Takeout: yes

Address, phone: 1577 N. Decatur Road, Atlanta. 678-244-7050.

Website: www.inkandelmatlanta.com

When you visit Ink & Elm, the new tavern/restaurant in Emory Village, you’ll have to make a choice. Will it be Ink or Elm?

Venture left and you’ll hit Ink, the lower-priced, more casual tavern with small menu snacks and shareable plates. The oversized bar stools running the length of the restaurant will be filled with folks there to sample one of the 100-plus choices of brown spirits like the New Holland Beer Barrel bourbon or the collection of craft beers.

Head to the right and you’ll enter Elm, the restaurant’s take on fine dining. Here in this more open and lofty space, you’ll find couples studying co-owner Keith Osborne’s wine list featuring exemplars from 11 countries designed to complement locavore chef Stephen Sharp’s appealing menu highlighting seasonal produce.

So how did we end up with two concepts in one space? During the planning process, owners turned to local design firm and restaurant consultant ai3 with their loosely defined concept. Taking the designer’s advice, they left the space divided as they found it and essentially developed two restaurants. And while that made architectural sense, it resulted in a divided house and a divided kitchen, ergo a divided chef.

Unfortunately, each half seems to exist to the detriment of the other. And Ink may divert chef Sharp’s attention just enough to prevent Elm from ascending the scale from a good-enough neighborhood spot to a memorable one.

Yet, I have to hand it to ai3. These split personalities are craftily unified by the atmosphere cultivated by the design. Both Ink and Elm envelop diners in a comfortable coolness conspicuously devoid of over-styled corporate flavor and the high-energy thrum of the scene. Slick, but not smarmy.

Overall, Elm shows the most promise of the two. On one of my visits, I was lucky enough to get in on the tail end of muscadine season and experience Sharp’s beautifully charred brick-cooked chicken ($22). The warm grapes added little blitzes of sweet earthiness to the chicken weeping with moisture. I also caught apple season and experienced the Georgia apple salad ($11), much like a slaw of lightly roasted apples, sliced endive and perky little cubes of pickled butternut squash coated in a creamy shallot vinaigrette.

Sharp’s skill and attention to detail come through in such dishes and in thoughtful touches like the parting gifts of miniature chocolate truffles or shards of salty benne seed brittle as good as, if not better than, any of the featured desserts.

And perhaps because the kitchen is stretched so thin, some plates seem to lack our chef’s touch, needing seasoning, editing or a component to tie it up. Take the perfectly bland pork loin ($26) with a subdued Vidalia onion gravy or the brown sludge that is wild mushroom, brioche and fromage blanc bread pudding ($9). Sounded good.

Then there’s the pumpkin and ham bone soup ($10), a nontraditional pumpkin soup that was broth-based with small squares of pumpkin. The curried pumpkin seeds infused a nice textural variation, but did nothing to boost the thin-flavored ham water. How it paled next to the delightfully smoky ham broth spiked with pickled peppers swirling beneath the Florida shrimp ($14).

If instead you find yourself at Ink, you won’t be able to pull your favorites from the Elm menu. Here your options include the spiced Georgia peanuts ($5) and broiled jumbo Virginia oysters ($12) dressed with shallot-Tabasco butter and bottarga (sea-salted roe). Next time, I’d steer clear of both the peanuts, which tasted like warmed honey-roasted nuts with a few sprigs of thyme thrown in the mix, and the oysters whose treatment highlighted an unpleasant ammonia character.

Go for items like the pot-roasty ricotta gnocchi with braised beef cheeks ($18) and the St. Louis pork ribs ($12) enlivened with bits of peanut and green onion. Those or the burger with Velveeta tang ($12) would do the trick to fill your belly if you came to sample the spirits.

And to make it even a little more confusing, right in between Ink and Elm you have yet a third area. That would be the lounge. Large leather wingback chairs accommodate small groups lingering over specialty cocktails like the Under Lock and Tea ($12), an herbal mixture of tea-infused bourbon and lavender bitters. Small side tables will be strewn with briny house-smoked trout ($5) and Spotted Trotter’s kimchee salami ($5). And this is where you’ll want to get your oysters. Daily specials include Kumamoto and Beau Soleil ($2.75 each), iced and accompanied by tiny droppers of red wine mignonette.

While the restaurant broadens its market appeal by offering separate experiences, a little more attention to each would help them achieve their potential. For now, I’m going with Elm. Which will you choose?