First Looks: Ri Ra and Joia
Two newbies on Crescent Avenue
Remember when Vickery’s was the only restaurant on Crescent Avenue in Midtown? It was considered an edgy location — the kind of place that magnetized urban hipsters, resplendent in black and redolent of cannabis. It was a great scene. Later, South City Kitchen opened on Crescent and attracted a more serious foodie crowd.
Now, more than 25 years since Vickery’s opened, the street has become the backside of the explosive high-rise development along Peachtree Street that real estate people call the Midtown Mile. It starts with the mixed use 1010 Midtown building, whose rear is home to three restaurants: Noon, RA Sushi and Rí Rá Irish Pub (1080 Peachtree St., 404-477-1700).
Rí Rá is catty-corner to the new Joia (1100 Crescent Ave., 404-537-5000), which occupies one of the older buildings on Vickery’s side of the street. It has been opened by Marco Betti, owner of Antica Posta in Buckhead. Rí Rá is part of a large national chain. The two restaurants are, naturally, vastly different.
Rí Rá derives its name from a phrase that its website translates as “devilment.” I suppose, but on a Tuesday night the devilment boiled down to a very large crowd of people packed into the front area of the pub playing trivia.
I specify the “front area of the pub,” because this is an absolutely gigantic space that becomes less intimate and more cavernous as you head toward the rear. The restaurant’s press material has made much of the fact that Rí Rá’s interior is constructed from restored pieces of 19th-century pubs in Ireland. The front bar really is impressive. It borders on Disneyesque, but after a few beers I’m sure you won't feel overwhelmed by its soaring, rococo hugeness.
The weather and the noisy inside crowd convinced us to eat on the patio during both visits. I brought my usual (and reasonable) fear of chain restaurants to the table, but I’m happy to say the food was better than I expected and a good value, too. The extensive menu is all over the map price-wise.
It is also all over the map conceptually. Along with classics such as bangers and mash and fish and chips, there's plenty of American-style pub grub such as burgers, wings and baked spinach dip.
We attempted to stay with the more expressly Irish dishes during our visit. I have one warning. Quantities are large and the esteemed potato — mashed, fried and roasted — seems virtually unavoidable. Indeed, my favorite starter here so far has been the thick, pan-seared potato cakes with balsamic reduction, but the hand-cut chips (that’s “fries”) served as a starter, are crisp and addictive when dipped in malt-mayo. Don’t carry your calorie counter.
Fish and chips was the most surprising dish to me. I’m sure you’ve had bad versions of this around town with limp fish and limper chips. Rí Rá is using haddock, steaming hot and flavorful in an ultra-crisp batter with chips that retain crispness, too. The haddock incidentally, is also pretty good broiled with a slight coating of crumbs, served over sautéed baby spinach and — you guessed it — potatoes roasted with parmesan.
All these potatoes and all this frying make a starter of smoked salmon with pickled red onions, capers and sour cream a great relief. What I didn’t care for was the thick Irish soda bread served with the salmon. I didn’t mind the bread itself so much, but — untoasted and mealy — it wasn't right with the fish.
The one dish that disappointed me was the corned beef and cabbage, which they’d run out of the first night we visited. I’ve eaten this dish all my life, at my mother’s table and in countless delis. The brisket was served cubed under an “Irish parsley sauce” and it had the taste I associate with meat that has been insufficiently brined with the right spices. The cabbage was dry and too crunchy for my taste. I couldn’t face the mashed potatoes also on the plate. I’ll be interested to hear others’ opinions.
The most popular dessert here seems to be a gigantic sundae. Or maybe it was scoops of frozen mashed potatoes. In any case, we couldn’t consider it at either meal.
We dined one evening across the street at Joia, whose name is mysteriously Portuguese. I say it’s mysterious because the restaurant has been opened by Marco Betti, the owner of Antica Posta, the Buckhead restaurant that really pioneered something that went above and beyond New York-style Italian food in our city.
Joia’s menu, by chef Brett Maddox, accents Italian, but, like Rí Rá’s, is all over the map. Coming from a graduate of Aria’s kitchen, it seems oddly unadventurous. We dined during the restaurant’s soft opening, so perhaps things will get kinkier with time.
My favorite dish by far was a caprese salad made with cherry tomatoes and a housemade bufala mozzarella that was surprisingly good. The kitchen is making it with water buffalo milk imported from Italy. It’s not perfect, but it’s way ahead of the usual impersonators.
A basket of fried calamari with jalapeños and tomato sauce was well done but, come on, give us something new.
I very much enjoyed my super-rich short ribs with roasted carrots, haricots verts, and fingerling potatoes. It did look like something that would appear at Aria.
I found Maddox’s flounder, labeled his signature dish, baffling. When I was growing up, “fish” and “flounder” were synonymous and I admit I lost a taste for flounder many years ago. This was cooked just the way I remember it at childhood restaurants like the Ambassador and the Coach and Six: sautéed in butter with lemon and dotted with capers. Wayne loved it, but I just don’t get it. I feel like I’m seeing flounder on more and more menus, too.
For dessert, we shared tiramisu served in a glass. It’s a unique version, accenting the cream instead of ladyfingers and espresso.
The restaurant was literally empty when we visited — this space has been death to several earlier ventures — and our server was greatly alarmed when I took a few pictures of the food. It seems Betti has forbidden picture-taking because a blogger, FoodieBuddha, had run some photos with a “disparaging” review of the lunch fare. I ignored the camera ban but the continual commentary of our waiter made us anxious, even though we liked the food.
Wayne, the Nicest Person Alive, kicked me and elbowed me twice when I started to argue with the server. Leave your camera at home.