Restaurant Review - The art of seduction

Slowly but self-assuredly, Aria casts its spell

"Sexy" is not a word I like to use to describe restaurants. It is overused, and generally ends up meaning gaudy and over-designed. But there are times when it is wholeheartedly called for. Aria is a sexy restaurant.

If Atlanta restaurants represent a marriage between food and design, it's not always a happy union. Along with Miami, L.A. and Las Vegas, Atlanta has become fixated on design, and it is often a far more important element in the dining experience than the food. (Interestingly, this is not the trend in New York, Chicago or San Francisco). Gone are the days when a nice restaurant was meant to convey simple luxury — now restaurants seem intent on thwapping diners over the head with some fantasy or other. It's a little, uh ... vulgar.

In terms of vulgar design, Aria could be considered among the city's worst offenders. The main element in the startlingly white room designed by the Johnson Studio is a light fixture made by artist Christopher Moulder that is downright pornographic. Cliff Bostock wrote a few years back that it "looks like an LSD-inspired sex fantasy from a Jules Verne tale." There's no denying that this restaurant is selling a fantasy, and it's one that is hard to take seriously — that is, until the food arrives.

First you have to have your order taken, which may prove a little disconcerting. A handsome man in jeans and an un-tucked, blue button-up shirt will approach the table, and you'll wonder who he is and why he's coming to talk to you. By the time "Good evening, how are you tonight?" has left his lips you will have figured out that despite the absence of an apron, this is in fact the waiter.

From there on out, Aria's appeal will begin to work on you. First you'll be pleasantly surprised by the smart but manageable wine list that takes up the front and rear pages of the long, slender menu. Then you'll be torn by the appealing New American menu, unsure whether to order the warm lobster cocktail as an appetizer or the fresh tomato soup with ricotta. When the food arrives in the form of bursts of glistening color, offset by the white room and the blue-clad waiters, not only will you give in to the sexy tone of the place, you'll feel sexy yourself. This is a restaurant-as-fantasy that works.

The aforementioned lobster cocktail, which is butter braised and served with truffled potatoes, is smooth and rich as silk. A beet salad with goat cheese and tangerine glistens with freshness and sets off taste and texture fireworks in the mouth — earthy beets, citrus spike and creamy goat. There is nothing here that will blow your mind, no conceptual genius or overwrought, over-thought food. This is a kitchen that knows what works, and knows that bold flavors with subtle seasoning are enough to satisfy and delight.

It probably helps that the chef here is also part owner. There is a certain sense you get from a menu that is pure, unfettered by the demands of bosses that may not understand a chef's vision. Gerry Klaskala spent a lot of time as an employee of very successful restaurateurs before Aria opened in 2000, first with Hyatt hotels and then as a managing partner and chef at Buckhead Diner in its heyday. He may have learned a lot about the showbiz aspect of dining from his Buckhead Life partners at Buckhead Diner, but his talent for refined, self-assured flavor is all his own.

A trout is served over a rich risotto, turned sweet and bright green by English peas. Chanterelle mushrooms and a cabernet-thyme essence lend the dish a woodsy edge to balance the exuberant freshness of the fish and the peas. Klaskala has a fondness for slow-cooked meats, and the results are worth every slow minute it must take. Organic, slow-roasted pork is delightfully piggy, fork tender and offset by the balsamic and gorgonzola polenta over which it's served.

When the floor staff decides to turn on the charm, you are in for some of the best service in the city. But it's also possible to be herded into a corner and somewhat forgotten. I have never experienced bad service here, just a stark contrast between the welcoming charisma that was lavished upon us on an evening when my dining guest was obviously "someone," and the capable, practical and slightly chilly service I received on another night.

Aria's pastry chef, Kathryn King, has been praised as one of Atlanta's top pastry chefs for years. On my first visit, I tried some of her crowd pleasers, like a chocolate cheesecake, and was impressed but not wowed. On subsequent visits I stuck with the fruit desserts, which are almost retro in their simplicity but thoroughly modern in their execution and respect of ingredients. A lemon panna cotta with blueberries is soothingly silky, a cool, dreamy ode to summer. A peach tart gives that fruit the sensual butter crust it deserves, the fruit so orange and sweet-tart that you'll still be thinking about it the next morning, wishing you had saved some for breakfast.

Somehow, by the end of the evening, all of Aria's elements will have wooed you, from the out-there, lascivious sci-fi design to the handsome tanned waiters to the colorful, flavorful, elegant food. It's a slow seduction, but that's the sexiest kind.