Restaurant Review - Rathbun, fully realized

Chef’s eponymous restaurant a crowning culmination of a bountiful career

Funky locale? Check. Industrial-chic space, two parts grit and one part glitz? Check and check. (Designed by the Johnson Studio? But of course.) Eardrum-damaging decibels and dim, viscous lighting? Oh yes. Agreeable offerings of creative small plates and comfort food by a local celebrity chef? Most assuredly.

Was there any way Rathbun’s wouldn’t be an instant hit?

Kevin Rathbun, veteran of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group and chef for nearly 25 years, is a smart man. He understands the formula for success in this town, and he’s run with it. Venturing out on his own for the first time, he has created a come-hither hot spot that practically compels Atlanta’s dining public to investigate.

Make sure you get good directions first. Rathbun’s resides in the Stove Works building on the edge of Inman Park and Cabbagetown. When Virginia’s occupied the space, I had a habit of getting lost in the neighborhood’s brambly streets. Perhaps that was because, despite its bohemian charms, I hardly ever went to Virginia’s. Now that Rathbun’s, which opened in May, has moved in and I’ve made three trips in one month, I know exactly where I’m going — as does the rest of the city, apparently.

“I’m running a few minutes late,” I called to tell the hostess one evening.

“Don’t worry — so are we,” she replied drolly.

Another visit we arrived during the prime time dining hour to find cars spilling out onto street, waiting for valet.

“The 8 o’clock lineup?” I asked.

The attendant just smiled, shook his head wearily and jogged off with my keys.

Once inside, Rathbun’s wife, Melissa, will likely let you know the pending status of your table and invite you to wade into the percussive pandemonium of the bar area. I’ve come to find waits in white-hot restaurants like this tolerable. It gives me a chance to soak in the tingle of the buzz. And this room, right now, is the most electric in town. That the bartenders here pour stiff drinks certainly encourages my patience.

On first glance, the sprawling menu looks unwieldy. But as you peruse the two elongated pages, certain items pop out at you, many of them with a familiar ring. The food (and really, the entire restaurant) is a culmination of Rathbun’s career. He unfurls both his celebrated and personally favored dishes, from his early days at Bradley Ogden’s American Restaurant in Kansas City to his recent stint as corporate executive chef for Buckhead Life. That’s a daunting amount of territory to cover and re-create. Remarkably, the kitchen traverses multiple genres with grace.

Order a bunch of small plates and let Rathbun’s life’s work flash before your palate. Satiny smoked salmon tostadas with a habanero spike evoke his time at Nava, the restaurant that brought him to Atlanta in 1995. Light, crispy calamari tossed in Indonesian sambal recalls the fusion stylings of Bluepointe, his post-Nava gig.

And the blue cheese fondue served with glorious, mahogany French fries I could down by the deep fryer-full? Sure reminds me of the lionized potato chips with Maytag blue cheese at Buckhead Diner (Rathbun was in charge of the menu overhaul there a couple of years ago).

Digging further into the past, the eggplant steak fries paired with an oddly successful sauce of Tabasco and confectioner’s sugar are a salute to Rathbun’s days in New Orleans, when he worked for Emeril Lagasse at Commander’s Palace. Funny how life plays out: Both these chefs have eponymous restaurants in Atlanta now. Personally, I’d rather eat through Rathbun’s entire menu thrice before returning to Mr. Lagasse’s establishment.

Wisely, there are also offerings that look to the future. “Crudo,” Italian for “raw,” is a sort of Italian sashimi recently popularized by Mario Batali at his New York restaurant, Esca. Rathbun’s two variations are sublime: In one, chunks of Ahi tuna bathe in fruit-forward olive oil. Slices of citrus — fresh Mandarin orange on the night I try it — and shards of Serrano peppers add a sprightly punch to the mix.

In the other, hamachi unites with tomatoes, cucumbers and English thyme in a potentially strange garden-meets-the-sea collision that works. The thyme ties it all together: It’s a natural with the vegetables, and also a sly, if perhaps unintentional, nod to the minty shiso leaves with which sushi chefs sometimes garnish their creations.

The frenetic energy of this room puts me in the mood to splurge, and I sample, without shame, every dish under the financially daunting “second mortgage plates” category. (If you’ve got a modest budget, no need to skip the party: Much of the menu is impressively affordable.) A thick, juicy veal chop wades in an outrageously creamy pool of sweet corn and Gouda cheese fondue. Snarf Central. The veal is outdone only by a 20-ounce bone-in rib eye slathered with warm Point Reyes blue cheese and bacon vinaigrette. Can you imagine anything more caloric? The restaurant should include a gym membership with its $33 price tag.

There’s a huge opening in the dining room wall that leads to the kitchen. Peering in, watching the staff frantically churn out food, reminds me of a scene in spy movies when the hero stumbles onto the villain’s secret laboratory full of scientists building an evil weapon. This workshop, happily, uses its resources for good.

Rathbun periodically steps out of the kitchen’s mayhem to meet and greet customers like an earnest politician, and Kirk Parks, his pastry chef and business partner, often joins him. Parks, who first worked with Rathbun at Nava, has used his freedom here to create a fresh, dazzling dessert menu of small bites.

The selections are changing with the season: A rapturous cookie basket filled with sweet cream and pristine raspberries is giving way to moist, gently spicy pumpkin cake with a bracing dollop of sour cream. I had what will probably be my last taste of fresh peaches for the year here, topped with a scoop of subtle sage ice cream.

Parks is masterly with ice cream in general, be it a bright berry flavor on top of a gorgeous blueberry cheesecake brownie, or dusky cardamom ice cream in a trio with swarthy chocolate and another darker, brassier variation on berry. And don’t miss his banana peanut butter pie. It resounds with the clear, nostalgic aftertaste of childhood.

Only infrequently did I encounter a misstep in my meals. Fried oysters on the “oysters two ways” app were so small they disappeared into their cornmeal batter, and I couldn’t detect a hint of the advertised lemongrass in their stewed counterparts. A lumpy crab cake became soggy in its watery tomato sauce. A special cheesecake with Japanese yuzu had an off-tasting, resiny clang.

Truly, though, for every one dish that went south, I tasted seven that were dead-on. And I’m not even halfway through the menu. I can’t wait to come back for the tarragon roasted chicken, which one server relayed was a recipe “Chef has been carrying around in his back pocket for 20 years.”

The way this menu reads, Chef must have some bulging back pockets. Rathbun weaves the richest tapestry of New American cooking to arrive in Atlanta in some years. So consider yourself informed: If his food sounds appealing to you, pick up the phone and make reservations right now, or you’ll likely be eating there on a Tuesday at 5:30 or 10 p.m. Even then, you wouldn’t be alone.