I knew nothing of my dinner date, other than she had gone to a fundraising banquet and bid on the “dinner with a critic” auction item. She was bringing her best friend and seemed amenable to any kind of restaurant I proposed within a 10-mile radius of downtown.
Where do you take someone you don’t know to dinner?
I didn’t know if she was the kind of person who drank wine or cocktails. Whether she was open to trying new kinds of food (“There’s a Korean restaurant that’s supposed to serve amazing barbecued beef pizzle”) or had a traditional palate (“The Palm is a steakhouse favorite year in and year out”). Most important: Would she be the kind of person who’d want to coordinate ordering to share as many tastes as possible, or would she prefer to order whatever she wants to eat and just have dinner?
I figured we should play it down the middle. I needed a restaurant where the food was distinctive but not so self-important that it demanded constant attention and commentary. Where diners could plan to make a dent in the menu or all order the amazing-sounding crab appetizer. A place that felt special but not “cue the chorus of angels” special. The obvious choice was Aria.
When this small Buckhead restaurant opened in 2000, it replaced a fine-dining stalwart called Hedgerose (and the Hedgerose Heights Inn before that). It seemed so brash and flashy, a place for rich 40-something baby boomers to throw around their new money. All anyone could talk about was the swooping glass chandelier designed by Atlanta artist Chris Moulder. In my initial review, I described it as “a giant squid with moray eel envy, as imagined by a Venetian glass blower in homage to Priapus.”
Now, it seems like the last intimate dining room in Atlanta, its fabrics thick and cosseting, its artwork tasteful rather than outré. I love the old-school manners: If there are three people in your party, you will be escorted to a white-napped table set for three. Every guest is anticipated.
The food? Gerry Klaskala has been a big culinary name in Atlanta for decades. He was the chef/owner who opened Canoe just before the Olympics and the consulting chef who opened Atlas only last year. But he makes his home base at Aria, where his visually striking food strikes a tone of quiet seasonality and luxurious charm. You go here to get those foods you crave for your birthday dinner.
This particular diner craved shellfish above all other foods. I started with an exquisite peekytoe crab salad, the nuggets of lump crab as big as actual toes, set on a bare puddle of herbaceous green oil and garnished with matchsticks of watermelon radish. How canny the way the tiny pops of radish flavor made the crab taste all the sweeter.
Then came sea scallops, huge and cooked to that magical temperature just past raw under their textbook-perfect brown sear. They arrived scattered over a painterly plate with sweet English peas and crisp asparagus in a veil of clingy butter sauce.
We traded a bite here and there, but this wasn’t one of those tables with flying forks until Kathryn King’s desserts arrived, and we reached for tastes of her tart, true fruit sorbets and her intense devil’s food cake with caramelized white chocolate.
That was fine by me. My lovely dinner companions gave me good reports on their braised pork and pan-roasted duck breast. I didn’t need to try them. I was happy to sit there and appreciate Aria’s refined song.
* * *
Fine dining, as defined by restaurants like Aria, may have grown rare, but I’m not ready to sing the dirge yet. What has arrived in its place is too much fun.
Example? Let’s go to Gunshow.
This time, though, I’m not bringing strangers. Gunshow demands to be shared with your most fun-loving friends.
Kevin Gillespie’s restaurant, opened on the cheap in 2013, has been described as too bright, too loud and too uncomfortable by people who need more cushioning under their tushies. But I love everything about it.
This is that restaurant where you don’t order anything; the chefs bring their creations from the kitchen to shop them to you in your seat, like the beer guy at Turner Field. Not sharing is not an option. If you go in a group of four you can comfortably try one of each of the dozen or more dishes on the menu.
We are two, so we have to do a bit of picking and choosing. Gillespie, executive chef Joey Ward and chef de cuisine Andreas Muller embrace the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy on contemporary American chow in all its contradictions. So, first you see a clever splatter-art deconstruction of the Italian dish vitello tonnato made with tiles of rare tuna. slivered rare veal and deep-fried caperberries. Then, you get a plate of crispy, juicy, remarkable fried chicken, which will be served at Gillespie’s planned Decatur restaurant, Revival.
Here comes a “toad in the hole,” or something that looks very much like the breakfast treat of a slice of toast with a hole cut for an egg to set inside. But the “egg” is a disguised puddle of truffle cream, and underneath lies a delicious round of beef tartare.
It can be a bit of an onslaught if you don’t pace yourself. I enjoy the sloppy, drippy $25 lobster roll well enough, but perhaps not as much as I enjoy a lobster roll when it is the sole, cherished item eaten at lunch. (Also, I think we’ve hit lobster roll saturation in this city.)
But we make room for dessert, a huge, messy and hilarious ode to Blueberry Morning breakfast cereal made with lemon pudding, fresh berries and poundcake.
When the bill comes, I’ve paid exactly as much as I did at Aria, just north of $100 per person.
Both are great treats — polar opposites, perhaps, but both exemplars of what dining can and should aspire to.
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