Restaurant Review - Dogwood's upscale Southern walks the line

In the midst of our city's Southern restaurant boom, let us pause to admire one of the cuisine's staples, a dish that's been elevated from down-home comfort food to high-end food magazine cover model: the grit. Versatile, appropriate for any time of day, and able to put a Southern pedigree on a dish in a single bound, grits are the superhero of New Southern cooking.

At Dogwood, they've been given their own menu section. The "grits bar" offers a plate of warm grits with a choice of one of three toppings, which have ranged from fried oysters to butter-poached lobster to ham and pimento cheese. The toppings vary in extravagance, but they aren't the stars of this show. The grits are rich with corn flavor, and their coarse, substantial texture delivers maximum impact to the surface area of your taste buds. Take a bow, grits; encore, encore.

Dogwood sits across from Emory Crawford Long Hospital in the Reynolds condominium building. The few blocks of Peachtree Avenue between North Avenue and the Connector exist in a locational paradox. The city has tried to brand the area SoNo, although I've never heard anyone call it that. It's not really Midtown, but it doesn't fit neatly into downtown, either. So a restaurant here must tread a carefully plotted path to appeal to both the tourists and conventioneers staying in downtown hotels, and the finicky trend followers who make or break Midtown restaurants. Whether by lucky accident or by design, Dogwood looks poised to pull off both. The striking decor, soft-jazz ambiance, fancy plating compositions and eager service will no doubt please the expense-account set and out-of-towners. But chef Shane Touhy's thoughtful flavor profiles and attention to quality ingredients should put Dogwood squarely on the radar of Atlanta foodies as well.

The elegant two-level interior pairs muted mossy green walls with black-and-white watercolors and photographs. Banquettes, booths and dividing walls section off the large space to create a feeling of intimacy.

It's obvious that a lot of training has gone on in this dining room. One night, our hyper-educated server spent 10 minutes explaining the details of his favorite 10 or so red wines (without asking if we were going to be drinking red wine – we weren't), before launching into a similar monologue about the food. "The tuna is going to be coming with some fingerling potatoes and is going to be having a barbecue sauce reduction around the plate. Another of my favorites is going to be the NY strip, which is going to be served with ..." and so on.

"What tense was he speaking in?" I asked my friend when the server left.

"The conditional perfect future?" she guessed.

The attention to detail is admirable, if not a tad exhausting. One way to avoid it is to eat at the bar, where the staff is just as highly trained but more apt to showcase its training in response to your inquiries, rather than as a matter of rote.

But the staff's enthusiasm is well-founded. From the first bite of food I took at Dogwood – a small stack of eggplant, tomato and goat cheese blintzes – Touhy's precision and creativity impressed me. On the new fall menu, an appetizer of tiny pork meatballs served with spinach dumplings and an acidic white wine tomato broth, offers a few bright bites of complementary flavors, perfect for sopping with bread and soothing the soul on these newly cool nights.

Touhy has taken a hotel restaurant mind-set and turned it on its head. His plates look a lot like what you'd find in old-school hotels, where the artifice of the food, the expense and design are more important than taste or ingredients. But Touhy takes taste and quality just as seriously as he takes appearances. He reinvents a standard fancy-food favorite, the crab cake, with high-quality smoked trout. The smoky, sweet trout added interest and unexpected flavor to a played-out classic. Dishes like these make everyone happy – those looking for familiarity with high-class edge, and those, like me, looking for something thoughtful and different.

The twists on Southern staples are often cool and successful, as when the two classic okra preparations – pickled and fried – are smooshed into one dish. The lightly pickled spears are dusted with cornmeal, fried and topped with crab meat. The result, a decidedly Southern take on the fried pickle, is just tart enough to balance the oily crust. Don't ignore the garish red oil circling the plate – it's a paprika oil with a surprising smoky intensity that beautifully sets off the other ingredients.

I even enjoyed Touhy's take on fried chicken with fluffy mac-n-cheese and pork-laden greens, despite the chicken being served off the bone. But the kitchen does its best with the reimagined stuff, such as the smoked short ribs served with grilled peaches and sweet potato pancakes. The dish contains so many fruity elements that another chef would lose subtlety, but Touhy reins it in and presents a wholly balanced and delicious pairing of meat, acid and warm, mellow sweetness.

Small missteps are easily forgiven: A tuna loin's pecan crust tasted overly sugary, and the venison osso bucco that every server in the place raved about was a little dry, although it retained tenderness. The chocolate blackberry cornbread upside down cake is truly bizarre — blackberries and cornmeal and chocolate simply don't go together, and the accompanying coffee gelato confuses things further.

But more often than not, I was impressed with the restaurant's ability to deliver. If I were to put it in the future continuous tense, I'd say it's going to be a success.