Restaurant Review - Training meals
Art Institute culinary students earn high marks for innovative appetizers, sensational soups and breath-taking breads
I have seen the future and it tastes a lot better than we might expect.
That's the future of Georgia food service, mind you — the future that's now being diced and pureed by the young chefs, managers and proto-restaurateurs in training at the Art Institute of Atlanta.
Under a cadre of professional chefs and instructors led by top toque Sarah Gorham (former proprietor of Two Chefs in Little Five Points), the culinary arts students cook, bake, serve and pop corks for paying guests at Creations, the laboratory restaurant on the fifth floor of the Dunwoody campus.
The public is invited. Reservations are essential. But keep in mind that this is a movable feast. Nailing down seats is tricky. The restaurant lab's schedule depends upon classes and curricula, not the marketplace.
Though about 10 tables small, Creations feels big. Windows on three sides face the suburban landscape, an oven-equipped classroom and the restaurant's kitchen. A bar and cashier's desk occupy the fourth wall. Swanky accouterments include white tablecloths, fresh flowers, no-nonsense stemware, wine racks and a handsome grill cart for tableside preparations. (Flaming cherries jubilee over ice cream-stuffed crepes was among the featured desserts when I dined there.)
By design, dinner menus are as wide-ranging as a philosophy seminar. Five courses, each with three or four choices, offer overviews of what we'll eventually be seeing in clubs and restaurants staffed by AIA graduates. Portions are modest. Almost all protein foods are fully cooked, not "seared," much less served raw. Dinner costs $30 per person plus tax, tip and beverages. Lunch is much less formal and sold a la carte.
Dinner begins with a basket of assorted, first-rate rolls and a plate of decoratively piped sweet butter. Refills on both are provided without fuss. After that, what you get depends upon the night and the chef in charge.
The menu is written in French (sometimes needlessly so — Cerises Jubilé avec Glace de Vanille, for instance) with English translations. The range of flavors and styles starts with contemporary hotel-continental (sweet onion tart with sauteed foie gras and lavender-marinated kiwi balls), then flirts with modernism a la Guenter Seeger (a sweet, bright-edgy apple-horseradish broth with root vegetables and quail quenelles). The kitchen really hits its stride with a seafood-fusion entree (pan-fried fresh halibut on Israeli conscious with grilled Japanese eggplant, cucumber angel hair and scallion emulsion).
As might be expected, with chef-professors providing recipes as well as oversight, even relatively straightforward or routine preparations are textbook examples. Dishes are typically well presented and delicious to eat. Among the most memorable last month: Stacked, thin-sliced sweet potato and turnips pavé with porcini mushroom sauce; a boldly flavored slice of smoked trout on a vegetable terrine with thyme vinaigrette; open-faced ravioli stuffed with assorted vegetables; and a wonderful sliced portobello mushroom playing second fiddle to roast pork loin with mashed parsnips.
Disappointments, though few, were startling: Guava bread pudding possessed not the remotest guava flavor. Woody Romaine leaves with anchovy-lime vinaigrette struck me as nothing more than a poor man's Caesar. Roast chicken consomme with basil pasta and leeks was the most surprising botch. It tasted scorched. Did anyone in the kitchen sample the broth before meal service started? (Note to young managers and cooks: That's always a good idea.)
Details, details. Beginners in the 300-student culinary arts program wait tables, pour wine and prepare bills at Creations. Sous chefs are in their final quarter. Watching the beginners is great fun. They move slowly but deliberately. They smile as if they mean it. They're aware not only of their customers but of the instructors backing them up as floor manager and host. One student is in charge of the bar. Wine is sold by the bottle and the glass. BYOB is permitted, with a $7 corking fee. Coffee and espresso are also dispensed. Credit cards are accepted.
The customers the night I went were tweedy and professorial looking, Emory and Georgia Tech alumni, say, the opposite of polyester mall rats. Costuming might be different on another occasion.
Finding the place and getting the schedule can be dicey. Though I'm told that the situation has since improved, securing directions took me through a succession of receptionists, student helpers and guards before I reached a knowledgeable administrator.
These directions work: Exit Georgia 400 at Abernathy Road, go east to the second set of stop lights. Turn left on Peachtree Dunwoody Road, go through one set of lights, pass the sign that says Embassy Row, get in the left-turn lane, turn left and look for the visitors parking lot on the far side of the first building on the left. Ride the elevator to the fifth floor.
This also works: Ride MARTA to the Sandy Springs station on the North Springs line. Cross Abernathy, walk a block and a half north on Peachtree Dunwoody Road and turn left.
The current series of lunches and dinners runs through March 2. Spring quarter service starts on or about the week of April 9, with reservations taken beginning April 3. Reservation requests can be faxed to 678-579-9124. Additional information can be gained and reservations left at 770-394-8300, ext. 2111. Reservations should be secured with a major credit card.