Restaurant Review - Less than perfect 10

Inventive Five and Ten in Athens doesn't quite add up

"There he is again," I note as I crack open my July copy of Food & Wine. Chef Hugh Acheson's name has been rippling through the local food scene for the past year. His Athens restaurant, Five and Ten, has generated buzz as a spirited neighborhood hot spot with fresh, innovative cuisine worth the hour-plus drive from Atlanta. With Food & Wine naming Acheson one of the country's best new chefs, my curiosity was aroused enough for me to make the trek and see what the hype is about.

The restaurant is housed in a funky building next to a liquor store in the Five Points neighborhood of Athens. You can't help but smile as you walk through the door. It's hopping in here. Professorial types, local businessmen and their wives, and graduate students on a splurge lean in to hear one another over the din. In the room's dusky light, the baby blue walls, pressed tin ceiling and quirky art exude a sensual vibe reminiscent of one of those New Orleans restaurants located just off the well-trampled tourist path.

Like the Big Easy, Acheson's seasonally changing menu reflects a patchwork of influences that comes out feeling uniquely American. Some of the playful ideas, however, fall short of the inspired heights to which the restaurant appears to aim.

A salad special ($7) — written on the blackboard across the room in small print but also mercifully recited by the server — is a toss of seedless watermelon, arugula and goat cheese, spiked with jalapeno vinaigrette. The heat of the chili with the cool, creamy cheese, the bite of the greens with the honey-sweet fruit all harmonize with one another master-fully. But another salad special ($7) of curly frisee, fresh dates, celery and slivers of Parmesan doesn't quite pull it off. There is too much frilly lettuce and not enough vinaigrette to lubricate the ingredients and bond the flavors together.

I have a similar experience with the pasta. Ravioli ($8 for appetizer portion, $15 for entree serving) stuffed with Swiss chard, shitake mushrooms and goat cheese in a sage brown butter with pine nuts looks good on paper but tastes ho-hum. On the other hand, homemade gnocchi (priced the same as the ravioli) with braised lamb in a sauce of tomato and pancetta is a deeply satisfying dish that hints at the arrival of fall.

Often, one too many ingredients appear in a dish and throw the whole thing out of kilter. Case in point: Butternut squash soup ($5) is served with meltingly caramelized shallots, pear and pistachios, but a liberal sprinkling of chives overwhelms those delicate flavors and leaves a lingering onion flavor on the palate. And assertive arugula shows up way too frequently. A special of tender diver scallops ($22) is served over mashed potatoes with spot-on herbed fennel, delicate haricots verts and — inserted right in the center of it all — two oblong leaves of barely wilted arugula. Ditto the grilled steak ($27). Though there's no mention of it in the menu description, when my plate arrives, I notice the meat is roosting on a wilted green mass. Is it ... ? Yep.

That steak, though, is one of the best in recent memory. Charred on the outside, juicy on the inside and served with crispy matchstick fries and an intriguing tomato gremolata (the parsley-based cousin of pesto), it is everything a carnivorous splurge should be.

And so it goes: up and down, up and down. Flavorful catfish ($17), served with tomato chutney and grits, has the subtlest hint of curry, a sly nod to the use of Eastern spices in Low Country cooking. But while a duck confit and corn hash keeping company with roasted duck breast is a sophisticated and tasty variation on a homey favorite, the duck breast itself is overcooked and chewy.

Despite the erratic nature of the appetizers and entrees, meals at Five and Ten conclude brilliantly. I love the pairings of artisan cheeses ($4-$12) with soulful, earthy accompaniments, such as a French triple creme with honeycomb and poached apricot, and a Californian aged goat cheese with fig compote. The desserts (all $6), by pastry chef Lynda Oosterhuis, are outstanding. If you're feeling the weight of being a responsible adult, don't miss the Campfire Tart, an oozy tribute to S'mores (graham crackers, marshmallows and all) that will take you right back to your days in the Scouts. More grown-up offerings include polenta crépes with fresh figs and caramel sauce, and an ultra-refreshing watermelon-mint granite, sneakily spiced with candied ginger and garnished with tiny balls of ripe cantaloupe.

The wine list is a pleasure to read. This is a good place to try one of those grapes, like Viognier or Mourvedre, which are cropping up on menus with more frequency. The staff has sampled a good deal of the list and gives honest opinions that lead to some fun discoveries. There's a short but well-chosen list of half bottles, a smart option for those wishing to imbibe in something a bit more out of the ordinary than a wine by the glass yet still be sober enough to make the drive back to Atlanta.

I later learned that the rush of publicity Acheson has received lately has kept him out of the kitchen quite a bit. He was not in the restaurant during my visits, which could account for some of the unevenness in the food. Part of being an astute chef, though, is training your staff to uphold your vision and standards even in your absence.

So, is it worth the journey? For inquisitive foodies looking to experience a kitchen with an adventurous spirit, yes. For others, the risk of traveling 70 miles to a moderately expensive restaurant with varying degrees of success means it's best to stay close to home base.