Restaurant Review - Grecian grace

Kyma careens on as one of the city's finest dining destinations

I'm pulling up in front of one of the city's frenzied, of-the-moment hot spots. It's 7:20 p.m. on a Friday, and the valet attendant already looks like he's ready to bolt from his job.

"You're a lucky man," he says, motioning to the line of cars behind mine. "You just got the last spot in the lot. Everyone arrived at once."

The restaurant's crowd has nearly distended out the door. I wriggle inside to a familiar scene: darkness, clamor, jostling bodies, red lights over a crazed bar, small plates on small tables intermingled with the omnipresent conical shapes of martini glasses. No reservations are accepted and the wait is steadily creeping to an hour-plus.

I take a hard look around and suddenly find myself understanding how that valet must feel. Tonight, I'm just not in the mood for the restaurant rat race.

I slip back outside and call the friend who's meeting me here.

"OK," he says obligingly. "Where do you want to eat instead?"

Where do I want to eat? It's a question restaurant critics don't routinely ask themselves. I stand pondering the answer for so long that my pal thinks we've lost our cell phone connection. Finally, it comes to me.

"Kyma," I tell him.

The crest of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group's themed ventures, Kyma opened late in 2001 — not an easy time to sell the city on high-end Greek food. But the fire behind owner Pano Karatassos' objective to elevate his ancestral cuisine proved ultimately irresistible: The throngs descended to sup on legitimate and soulfully rendered meze appetizers and exquisitely fresh fish flown in daily from the Mediterranean.

Kyma has been and remains on my personal list of top five favorite upscale restaurants in Atlanta. The subdued, nautical decor puts me at ease. I love the "opa!-as-art" mosaic of broken plates in the spotless marble foyer. The smoky, meaty slices of wood-grilled octopus still lure the timid to tentacle utopia. And I'm always ready to throw down some serious cash for Kyma's reverential ways with fish.

Yet I do hear grumblings about this restaurant from time to time. And, after my arrival at Kyma from the hot spot and two subsequent visits, I can add my own voice of dissent to some aspects of dining here.

Rarely are any complaints directed at the food itself. Executive chef Pano I. Karatassos (the owner's son) can lovingly translate the flavors of Greece like few others. His saganaki — a slab of kefalograviera cheese sauteed in ouzo and lemon juice — is a charming amalgam of lowbrow ooze and uptown knife-and-fork fare. Spanakopita has so rarely been wrought with any finesse in restaurants that every bite of crisp filo and creamy, feta-infused spinach seems revelatory. Each component of the grape leaves — from the lemon-sparked rice and the suppleness of the leaves to the plush texture of the yogurt tzatziki spread — spoils you against any other rendition in town.

Speaking of yogurt, it is criminal to exit the restaurant without having spooned a few bites of voluptuous yogurt lacquered with Peloponnesian honey and candied walnuts into your mouth for dessert. Or gobbled several hot fritters dunked in the same honey, whose complexity makes it impossible to become cloying.

If you veer from these traditional tastes, you get what you get. A lump crab cake with shallot-dill mayonnaise? Neither better nor worse than the rendition you can order at most decent spots. Ahi tuna feels wonky in this setting, and white Tokyo turnips — though an intriguing pairing with tuna — don't ease the sense of displacement.

No, if you're here for fish — which you should be — then cast your eyes to the top of the menu and choose from the selection of piscine pleasures that are wood-grilled, filleted, scattered with capers and embellished with lemon and olive oil. I always gravitate to lavraki (also known as loup de mer), whose snowy flesh has a universal, gossamer appeal. Tsipoura (or royal dorado) is slightly more assertive but would never be defined as "fishy"; delicately rich is more accurate.

These a la carte fish entrees range from $22 to $34 apiece, and ordering sides like the tawny, crunchy Greek fries or the silken eggplant stew (at $6.50 each) is essential to round out the meal. Expectations, then, are naturally high around this centerpiece experience. And that's where Kyma can occasionally flounder.

The cooking is not at fault. I've never encountered an overcooked piece of fish here. But sometimes it arrives tepid, indicating a disconnect between the kitchen and servers. I sense, given the level of care typically tendered by the cooks, the blame lies more closely with the service.

Case in point: We arrive on a Monday night without a reservation. The main dining room is relatively quiet but we opt to sit in the more casual bar area. From the get-go, our server's mind is either elsewhere or bizarrely fixated. He turns his head while pouring bottled water and spills it on the table. He fiddles fanatically with the placement of our plates. We opt for the $39-per-person "meze dinner" that includes a grilled fish split three ways, but he neglects to bring out the first course, a tasting of signature spreads.

He tells us that mild, firm turbot is the only fish large enough for splitting that evening, and it's fine by me. He brings it forth from the kitchen on a platter — lovely — and proceeds to divide it for us. For 10 minutes, this guy gets full-on OCD with that critter. I've never seen a more pristine division of a fish, with a judicious tuft of sauteed greens and a lemon half poised just so on each plate. Alas, the turbot and the greens are little more than room temperature by the time we get our first forkful.

Obviously, that's an extreme example. The problem seems to have developed into an occasional but persistent glitch in the restaurant's otherwise sublime degree of polish. Fortunately, the professional yet concerned demeanor of the suit-clad managers helps enormously: They're happy to whisk your plate away and mediate with the kitchen.

The lesson? Remember to speak up if your meal's not right. Don't let a little situation turn you into a cold fish against this Atlanta gem.