Restaurant Review - Bluepointe special

Pano spells it with an 'E'

Ambience may not be everything in a glamour-puss restaurant. But at Bluepointe, the Karatassos chain's newest Buckhead be-seen scene, theatrical lighting is at least as important as chef Ian Winslade's contemporary fusion cooking.

By night, with halogen spots focused precisely on white-and-silver tabletops, causing linens and glassware to pop out like volcanic atolls in a darkening sea, and with the restaurant's cool-friendly ambient lighting setting off the Thai silks and Rolex watches of the thirtysomething patrons, the atmosphere inside Bluepointe is much like an icy gin cocktail on a warm summer eve.

In scrim-curtained daylight, the restaurant's gray, black and blood-red harlequin decorations, Pullman-plush upholstery and dizzying succession of levels and hideaway terraces — arguably a riff on New York's sensational Le Cirque 2000 — conjure up a certain formality that remains hidden at night. The light is clean, warm and slightly gray, just right for suggesting probity in commerce and money in the bank. That's when the ladies who shop come out, sporting diamonds, pearls and what passes for couture in Atlanta. Suits from nearby office stacks do their business nearby, their cell phones laid down between platters like bladeless steak knives.

Chef Winslade's wide net of seafood specialties is as precisely calibrated as the lighting. As at Pano Karatassos' sister restaurants Nava, Chops and Veni Vidi Vici, Bluepointe's chef takes time-tested ideas and recipes, tones them down, dresses them up and attempts to reproduce them on what amounts to a culinary assembly line. And it sells — big time.

This approach can be extraordinarily satisfying — when it works. Ponzu-marinated, perfectly seared Chilean sea bass on a buttery potato cake with shiitake mushrooms held our attention right down to the moat of scallion sauce with which the plate was washed ($24). Crisp outside, marvelously flaky within, and with the spare, clean flavor of the fish nicely complementing the rich bed of spuds and fungi, this is a fish entree to match any in the city. Peanut-crusted grouper on bok choy with masaman curry and steamed rice was almost as delicious ($19). The fish itself was slightly overcooked, the vegetables just a few seconds short of mushy — at least in Asian and contemporary terms. Yet the brown-velvet sauce and aromatic rice would be perfectly acceptable on Buford Highway — or in San Francisco. Pulling a perfect piece of fish off the fire at precisely the right instant 200 or 300 times a night is daunting work. Adding exactly the right amount of salt or dressing 10 dozen times a day is not for slapdash chefs.

Which may or may not explain a muddled entree described as "crisped Florida pompano over purple potato couscous with spring herb emulsion," $23. The fish fillets were soggy, tasteless and not remotely crisp. The large-grain, Israeli-style couscous was served beneath the useless fish, with the surprisingly flavorful spud cubes on top. Minus the fish, as a novelty side priced at around $5, the accompaniments just might have worked. As dinner, the plate struck me as the last Oldsmobile to leave Detroit.

A shrimp-and-avocado salad with sesame-ginger dressing was the same sort of "if-only" botch ($11). Like everything else at Bluepointe, the entree is prettily presented — a breast-shaped mound of baby greens and luscious avocado slices surrounded by a dozen or so shelled, neatly arranged jumbo shrimp, each tail facing the same way. If only the shrimp possessed any taste at all, and if only the salad hadn't been doused with three times too much dressing, it might have been worth eating. I finally put a saucer under one end of the plate to drain away excess oil and vinegar. It didn't help much.

Luckily, we began that meal with garlic crab spring rolls ($9 for three) and ended with a delicious, albeit over-packaged ginger creme brûlée ($7). The rolls — crisp, hot, freshly fried rice-paper wrappers packed with sweet, flavorful crab meat in turn set off by sharp bits of contrasting cilantro — were artistically arranged on Bibb lettuce and garnished with herb sprigs. A mayonnaise-like honey dipping sauce did little for them, but they were fine by themselves, especially when wrapped, Asian style, in the lettuce and herbs.

A meal made solely of Winslade's Asian-inspired appetizers might not be a bad idea. Slivers of pepper-coated, wok-seared tuna with a salad of vine shoots, pickled ginger and wasabe mayonnaise struck me as well worth a return visit ($11). So did a dynamite spider roll that combined clear flavors (soft shell crab, avocado), textural contrasts (fried crunch, soft wrapper, heat and coolness), visual complexity (wave-pattern nori wrapper) and the novelty of an unusually flavorful wasabe paste ($9.50). Shrimp dumplings, however, despite clear shrimp-burger flavor, were weighted down by sodden, leathery wrappers ($8).

Better to go with Thai basil cucumber salad, an upright cylinder of thin-sliced cucumber with pickled ginger and micro greens ($5.50). Strict carnivores, on the other hand, can choose from such red-meat entrees as crispy duck with panang curry, roast lamb on potato cake and filet, strip and ribeye beef steaks.

The creme brûlée, described on the menu as "ginger custard," was garnished with a scoop of Key lime sorbet perched on a coconut macaroon. The rough texture of the macaroon provided twice too much contrast to the silky custard and sorbet. Jasmine-infused white and dark chocolate mousses in thin chocolate wafers — an even sharper example of more being less — tasted like a chemistry experiment gone slightly wrong. The presumed model for this dessert, the Oreo cookie, though hardly a model of nutritional purity, is infinitely more satisfying.

Waiters glide or clomp around Bluepointe in black, high-collar Dr. No suits. Hostesses prance back and forth modeling skin-tight stretch tops and fashionable Capri pants in ice-cream colors, the latter with beaded fringe at the cuffs. Good service may depend upon the luck of the draw. Our lunch waiter didn't crack a smile in an hour and a half. He did his job, period. Maybe he doesn't like restaurant work, or found our clothing not to his taste. By contrast, his colleague on a weeknight smiled welcomingly, made small jokes, recommended decent wines — in short, read his customers, responded appropriately and used every trick in his repertoire to make sure we enjoyed ourselves despite the hefty prices. In that pro's hands, we did.??