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In the Stove Works, at the stove

Rathbun's finds ex-Buckhead Life chef back in the kitchen

On a recent Wednesday night — my birthday to be exact — Kevin Rathbun, an imposing figure in his chef's whites, moves from table to table of his new restaurant, greeting customers and asking for feedback. On the other side of the restaurant, his wife Melissa is doing the same thing and, nearby, a third person is canvassing even more opinions. Meanwhile, our server Mark is doing everything but patting my hand and telling me that life is beautiful, even at 100 years of age.

The solicitous service may be the first thing you notice about Rathbun's (112 Krog St., 404-524-8280). The founding chef of Nava and his two partners (Kirk Parks and Cliff Bramble) clearly have it in mind to create a restaurant that is personally convivial — perhaps an intentional departure from the comparatively stuffy Buckhead Life restaurants where all three worked the last 10 years or so. But they are also about good food, of course. "I love being back in the kitchen," Rathbun tells us. "I was the corporate chef for Buckhead Life the last four or five years and I missed cooking."

Before coming to Atlanta to open Nava, Rathbun was chef at Stephan Pyles' Baby Routh in Dallas. Pyles' "New Texas cuisine" was one of the nation's most exciting culinary developments in the mid-1980s. I happened to be editing a magazine in Houston at the time Pyles opened Routh Street Cafe in Dallas and my publisher insisted I make a special trip there to taste the musician-turned-chef's cooking. At the time, Rathbun was actually working for Emeril Lagasse as sous chef at the Houston Brennan's. He went from there to the Commander's Palace in New Orleans and then to Pyles' Baby Routh in 1988.

Rathbun's menu certainly shows the influence of the Southwestern cuisine he developed at Nava, but it also reflects his time at Bluepointe, Buckhead Life's Asian fusion restaurant, where he was opening chef in 1999. Thus the restaurant's menu deserves its characterization as "global."

Before getting to the menu, a few words about the setting. The restaurant is located in the Stove Works space vacated by Virginia's. Ironically, not too long ago I complimented Virginia's for its romantic, artistic environment as an expression of individuality that was a nice change from the high-style corporate look the Johnson Studio has installed in so many restaurants in town. Well, the Johnson Studio has shown up here too, tearing out Virginia's bordello-red curtains and installing a minimalist decor. Like all of the Studio's work, the look at Rathbun's is classy — I love the huge lanterns that look like they belong in Fritz Lang's Metropolis — but it's not edgy. It's a big open room with cool lighting and sound. Folks coming from Buckhead to Cabbagetown will feel like they are slumming in style.

The food is mainly good although we did encounter some disappointments. I'll get those out of the way first. A starter of lamb scallopini featured weirdly greasy meat with rock-hard little cubes of pancetta and miniscule bits of Sweet Grass goat cheese. Don't order it. You may also want to avoid the entree of sea scallops "Benedict" with country ham grits. The scallops were sweet perfection but the grits were stiff and congealed, a very poor accompaniment to the lake of rich Hollandaise. I get the idea — three creamy textures — but it ain't working.

On the other hand, blackened swordfish, with pickled cloves of garlic and slices of orange, tasted almost exotic. For another small plate, Rathbun cubes sushi-grade ahi tuna and baptizes it with cold-pressed olive oil, then plays it against regular oranges marinated in blood-orange vinegar whose sharp notes are in turn further intensified with Serrano chiles. The day's soup, Vidalia onion with gouda and sour cream, was a very adult smoothie. Wayne's entree, pan-roasted George's Bank cod, beat the hell out of my scallops — and I'm not very fond of cod. It was served with a ragout of shrimp and Louisians' beloved mirliton (chayote squash).

A couple of side dishes worth ordering are grilled artichoke hearts, the stems still on, with only olive oil seasoning them. Cauliflower mashed with brown butter is a tangy alternative to mashed potatoes.

Partner Kirk Parks is also the restaurant's pastry chef and you definitely want to order a sampler plate of four of his desserts. Our favorite was an almond cookie basket and sweet cream with the best raspberries I've tasted in a long time. My second fave was a hard chocolate cube filled with chocolate mousse. Next was the sugar-free lemon panna cotta with local blueberries. Tiramisu, made with Jamaican coffee, was a distant fourth for me, even with its chocolate container.

I should mention that the restaurant's prices are quite agreeable. Small plates, salads and soups are all under $7. Most entrees are under $20 with the exception of four grouped under the compassionate heading of "second mortgage plates."

Here and there

Richard Blais has resurfaced as chef at Bazaar Urban Bar (654 Peachtree St., 404-885-7505) next to the Fox. The former chef of Fishbone enjoyed a six-month run at a restaurant in Buckhead bearing his own name and a menu of kinky small dishes in the style of Spain's El Bulli. Although I did not share other critics' orgiastic response to the restaurant, I was certainly sorry to see it close. In his new incarnation at Bazaar, Blais (who is also a partner in the venture) will focus on more accessible tapas dishes, though his infamous foie gras milkshake will be a mainstay on the menu.

Salt has opened in Cavu's abandoned spot in Midtown, with a menu of mainly straightforward American dishes like meatloaf and fried catfish ... I lunched twice in a week at Luxe downtown and found the restaurant mainly empty — which is tragic, since it is serving by far the best lunch in the area. Crepes filled with duck and a crabcake sandwich with fennel beat the pants off the lunch I had another day at the nearby Ritz Carlton — a muffaleta whose soggy texture made eating more than half of the huge thing impossible.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.



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