349 Peachtree Hills Ave., Atlanta
3 of 5 stars
Overall rating: 3 of 5 stars
Food: Italian steak and small plates
Service: professional, knowledgeable, friendly
Best dishes: shell steak, sweetbreads, artichokes and lemon, olive oil cake
Vegetarian selections: assorted bar snacks and vegetable dishes
Price range: $$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-close Sundays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Children: better not
Parking: yes, valet
Reservations: yes, make them in advance
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: high in the bar and dining room, low on the patio
Patio: yes, a beautiful space
Address, phone: 349 Peachtree Hills Ave., Atlanta. 404-841-8820.
Late last summer my husband and I commemorated our anniversary at one of Atlanta’s most anticipated new restaurants — which shall anonymous. Like many new spots, it sports the warehouse-design styling du jour, which is aesthetically pleasing but translates to pure noise. It isn’t for everyone.
“Loud” doesn’t describe our nuptial celebration that night. Talking with my husband across the two-person table was like watching a movie on mute. His mouth moved but the sound instantly swirled into the vacuum of raucous background noise. Texting or bust. Not kidding. Happy anniversary.
New restaurants walk this delicate ledge, teetering between form and function, and some do so with infinitely more success than others. Score one for KR SteakBar, Kevin Rathbun and crew’s newest venture nestled in the Peachtree Hills area of Buckhead. It navigates these waters by offering separate, distinct spaces designed by Johnson Studio. Something for everyone.
Just off the entrance, the lively and prominent 60-seat bar area thrums with an energy to match the glow cast from the amber walls and creamy lighting. High-top tables flank one side while oversized leather chairs line the other.
The bar gives way to the dining room with a view into the open kitchen, separated only by a semi-private table for 10 surrounded by an arresting rope and curtain feature. The din from the bar carries over to the dining room, but fails to obliterate all sound issued from across the table. Still, Rathbun says improving the acoustics is the restaurant’s current focus.
The exquisite outdoor patio, set under old-growth magnolia trees hung with glowing lanterns, offers a retreat for those who prefer a quieter, more intimate experience. Next winter, when the patio closes, a private party room now under construction will accommodate overflow and provide a retreat for those looking to escape the buzz.
Rathbun also plans to add a 28-seat soundproof speakeasy to offer yet another option for guests. Something for everyone, remember?
That’s the goal, and it also applies quite successfully to the cuisine. Originally described as Italian “small plates steak,” both the concept and the SteakBar moniker befuddled some.
According to Rathbun, Italian is a cuisine he has long wanted to explore. “People love Italian. People love steak. And, you know, I’m one for the people.”
The two form a blissful union at KR SteakBar, where you can do a happy dance around the menu divided into snacks, charcuterie, pastas, vegetables, seafood and meats.
The SteakBar appellation suggests the small-plate format and the bites you might grab at the bar with a stiff Italian cocktail like a negroni ($11) or one of the wines from an Italian-dominant list sorted by wine-growing regions.
To hone his skills in Italian cuisine, Rathbun worked at Del Posto, the New York City Italian restaurant owned by Mario Batali with Joe and Lidia Bastianich. After returning to Atlanta, he said he re-outfitted KR SteakBar’s kitchen “to anticipate the pasta piece.”
And because he now divides his time between four restaurants, he brought chef Chris McDade back from New York with him to fill the role of chef de cuisine. McDade, a Gwinnett County native and onetime sous chef at Rathbun’s, has spent much of his career in Italian kitchens, including Danny Meyer’s Maialino. Rathbun gives this young and energetic chef a great deal of autonomy with KR SteakBar’s ever-changing menu.
The restaurant establishes its Italian presence with fresh handmade pastas accented with delicate sauces. The cream-kissed tomato bolognese ($15) highlights folded ribbons of slick and tender inch-wide pappardelle. Rings of tortellini ($16) stuffed with creamy ricotta derive a gentle vegetal sweetness from peas and carrots. Ridged rolls of thin garganelli ($15) boast a more aggressive flavor from a creamy ricotta that melts into a brothy jus studded with briny olives and lamb bits. And that’s just the beginning.
For the steak component, KR SteakBar offers small portions of prime dry-aged beef like my favorite, the well-seasoned shell steak ($28) with beefy espresso jus and fresh shaved horseradish. Pair it with the grilled radicchio ($7), enriched with cubes of ham and vinegar. The slight bitterness from the radicchio draws out the espresso notes from the steak.
The exceptionally tender hanger steak ($18) commands attention with its bitter treviso adornment, sweet pickle-flavored green-garlic mustard and a crunchy salt sprinkle. If you’re more of a steak purist, try the well-marbled ribeye ($28), cooked to a perfect medium-rare with a slightly charred and salted crust.
Although not intended to compete with Kevin Rathbun Steak, KR SteakBar offers fans of its sister restaurant the option of ordering a double shell or double ribeye. The small-plate restaurant even sells an aged porterhouse for two ($76) as a menu standard.
The steak will steal your belly, the pasta your heart, but it’s the “other” that will steal your soul. How do I love thee? Let me count the dishes. Start with the artichokes and lemon ($8), one of the restaurant’s signature dishes that Rathbun calls “a labor of love.” The kitchen hand-turns six to seven cases of artichokes a day to marinate and fry with addictive crispy-thin slices of lemon.
You’ll want a buddy to split five or so dishes, like the glistening coil of house-made lamb sausage awash with dark cane syrup ($8) or the juicy lamb sweetbreads ($8), their pleasantly unctuous texture bouncing off tart green strawberries. And if you can make room, order the grilled head-on Georgia shrimp ($7) accented by a smear of Spotted Trotter ’nduja, an Italian chorizo pâté of sorts.
Whatever you do, save room for dessert with Italian leanings (all $6). Try house-made pizzelles with Meyer lemon-rosemary cream or a thick rectangle of pine nut tart with floral-scented rose water gelato, KR SteakBar’s answer to pecan pie. My favorite is the moist and fruity olive oil cake with a custardy pistachio gelato buoyed by tart blood oranges (seasonal).
Rathbun compared opening KR Steakbar with molding wet clay, saying that they “try to skip the ego and morph into what the people want.” By addressing early feedback about the noise, creating distinct spaces, making adjustments and creating a broadly appealing menu, Rathbun and his team have crafted another establishment with a little something for everyone. He admitted, with all sincerity, “I love to make people happy. When I don’t, it makes my heart hurt.”