Tongues of fire
Two Urban Licks opens its stylish doors, plus a first visit to Decatur's Wahoo!
I'm sure your high school English teacher required you to read Lord of the Flies, William Golding's novel about a group of schoolboys' deterioration to anarchy and violence after they are marooned on an island. One of the principal images of the book is the bonfire — first as a means of signifying the lost boys' existence to passing ships. Then, as things break down, the fire becomes a sign of power and ritual violence.
That was my immediate association after taking a seat at Two Urban Licks (820 Ralph McGill Blvd., 404-522-4622) last week. The new restaurant, opened by Bob Amick and Todd Rushing of One Midtown Kitchen, features "fiery American cooking." Lest you doubt, the dining room, whose center is a circular open kitchen, is dominated by a 14-foot-tall flaming rotisserie oven. It is a bizarrely primitive image overwhelming a room whose design, by the Johnson Studio, is so urbanely urban, I couldn't help imagining Piggy, Ralph and the other boys of Lord of the Flies set loose in the Manhattan jungle.
Honestly, I think it's the best design the Johnson Studio has done yet, blowing even the recent, rather minimalist Rathbun's out of the water (though both exhibit an apparent love by someone at the Johnson Studio for huge lantern-like lighting devices). This is another warehouse space — a postmodern montage of rough walls, smooth banquettes, exotic flower arrangements set higher than the towering inferno, tiled effects created by light and, most delightful to me, an enormous painting by Todd Murphy, whose elegiac style perfectly suits this dark, dramatic and passionate set.
On a barely cool evening, we sat next to a huge, open garage door with a view of Atlanta's skyline peeking over the trees. It's thoroughly romantic. Then you step outside onto the concrete patio and you are instantly aware you are in a post-industrial space. I love the dynamic ambiance.
The executive chef is Scott Serpas, most recently of Mitra. He is also a partner in the new endeavor. Barely open three weeks when we visited, the restaurant was already running smoothly and nearly filled to capacity. Almost everything we ate on the daily menu was pleasing — even when it sounded grim, like my starter of "pork lollipops" with grape chili jam and goat cheese. It was basically pork sausage balls on Popsicle sticks sitting atop a sauce that was pure Serpas in its fruity, piquant character, with globs of the cheese melting into it.
Less satisfying to me was Wayne's starter, "two urban dip," which could serve as a light entree for the wasp-waisted. It was basically a classic French dip — a sandwich of shaved prime rib with caramelized onions, served with horseradish dip and house-made potato chips. Don't ask me why, but the beef had practically no flavor. Get the baby back ribs with Texas barbecue sauce and grapefruit slaw instead.
Wayne's entree, whole, wood-roasted loup de mer, was my favorite dish (and the menu's most expensive at a reasonable $24). I adjourned to the restrooms — they are as weirdly wonderful as One's — and returned to find the loup de mer's crispy skin and succulent flesh, redolent of vegetable broth, reduced to a polished rubble of fine bones. My beef brisket — smoked until fork tender but not reduced to jelly — was probably the best I've had in memory. It was served with triangles of watermelon under crumbled feta cheese.
Pastry chef Jennifer Etchison is preparing hugely portioned, homey desserts that recall Amick's original days at the Peasant restaurants. A chocolate cream pie was nostalgically yummy, but my six little cupcakes — amaretto, chocolate and red velvet — were far too dry, even with a delicious homemade Rocky Road gelato.
The much less ambitious Wahoo! (1042 W. College Ave., 404-373-3331) has been open in Decatur more than a month. I love the look of the place. It's a minimally designed, small warehouse-like space with rough walls and some casually placed chandeliers. The kitchen, a messy space, is open to view, and its front bar displays the restaurant's attractive pies and cakes.
The place has a bit of a Parisian feel, with tables placed so close to one another along a banquette that it's impossible not to start conversing with your neighbor, unless you are accustomed to pressing your knees against a stranger's without comment. Hell, while I was sitting down, I knocked the neighboring table's votive candle over and almost set the place on fire.
The food is fair to middlin', even though the ambiance — the restaurant features a bar for hanging out in the rear — could not be more convivial. Tuna tartare with wasabi cream over baby greens would have been perfect if the oniony-caper taste was turned down enough to catch the ahi's flavor. On the other hand, five sauteed shrimp served with a crispy potato cake was damn good, despite a barbecue sauce that will never make it to the subtlety hall of fame.
The signature wahoo appears as grilled medallions in a pungent salsa verde. It's cooked primo, but then the kitchen serves it over buttermilk mashed potatoes so dry and tepid that the people at our neighboring table returned theirs for warming. "Bring some gravy if you have any!" one of them asked wistfully.
I had a much better dish — grilled duck breast topped with an obnoxious-sounding but perfectly innocuous balsamic-blueberry sauce. I was worried it would be too sweet, but our server assured me that the sweetness was tempered by horseradish. Um, OK! Instead of potatoes, I got much more appetizing grits spiked with cheddar. There was no sauteed spinach on the plate, even though the menu promised it.
Desserts were likewise mixed successes. A chocolate cake had twice the icing it needed, but that was easy to manage by scraping half of it to the side. A shaggy coconut cake, alas, was drier than the mashed potatoes. Attention, Wahoo! Call culinary 911 and ask for Scott Peacock of Watershed, who makes perfect versions of both cakes.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.