Ria Pell gets nostalgic in Inman Park
What does nostalgia taste like? Of course, it’s different for all of us. But nostalgia can be conjured, creating a kind of gastronomic déjà-vu — I’ve been here before, haven’t I? No, I guess not, but it feels eerily familiar.
At Sauced, Ria Pell’s new restaurant and lounge in 11:11 Teahouse’s former Inman Park spot, there’s a lot of nostalgia conjuring going on. Pell has taken the strange, slightly cramped space and managed to turn its drawbacks into assets. The minute you walk in, you’re transported to a kind of ’50s/’60s/’70s flashback, part your grandparent’s wood-paneled den, part swinging bar from some scene you probably didn’t take part in but wish you had. Sauced is masterfully quirky, bolstered by its small scale and Pell’s small touches — the antlers on the walls; the cube cushions on the low black banquettes; the warm but sparse lighting.
On weekends, what looks like the host stand becomes a DJ table where either Pell or a guest spins vintage soul and camp classics. Bartenders pour cocktails with names such as Goodnight Saint Nick, a mixture of rye whiskey, orange-maple syrup and allspice that tastes like Christmas and looks as if it’s a prop in one of those garishly colored Jell-O cookbooks from the ’50s.
If the scene manages a practically perfect amalgamation of retro stylings and vibe, the menu does a less ideal job. Offerings include a weird mix of classic Americana, the sort rarely seen on modern menus, and Southern vegetarian fusion. So that means, on one hand, beef short ribs Wellington, and on the other, “Southern dolmas.”
The Americana is the menu’s best part, and the most fun. The short ribs Wellington encases tender meat in puff pastry for a hearty, rich throwback of a dish. The overcooked Brussels sprouts (who doesn’t have a negative memory of mushy sprouts?) that come with the Wellington aren’t as appealing.
I kind of loved the chicken cutlet, an example of taking a retro classic and updating it ever so slightly. Garlic rapini tops the breaded cutlet, adding just enough bitter interest to counteract the provolone and tomato sauce. It’s not exactly gourmet, but it charmingly plays with an American home cookery classic.
The Southern fusion doesn’t fare so well. “Grits,” made with forbidden rice, sit underneath blackened cod for a dish that’s visually disturbing — the grits are black, as is the cod, and the taste of fish with bland rice mush and cheese fails to counteract the look of the thing.
Black-eyed pea fritters — served with three kinds of sauce, all tasting vaguely like something from a Chinese takeout packet — are mindlessly fun and could use salt. The Southern dolmas also need seasoning, which is a pity because the idea of wrapping brown rice and dates in collards rather than the traditional grape leaves is inspired. I’m baffled, though, by the mismatched accompaniment of tahini on one end of the plate and feta yogurt sauce on the other. The feta makes up for the sodium deficit, but otherwise the whole enterprise seems confused.
Are we nostalgic for the days when restaurants took cash only? Honestly, I don’t mind the policy, particularly because there’s an ATM machine located within the restaurant. But I do wish there was a better place for the cash-dispensing box. On busy nights there’s sometimes a line of people snaking through the crowded dining room waiting their turn.
I wish Pell would stick with the vintage recipes, and push the kitsch factor further. The visuals and vibe of the place are so successful, why not go balls out on the menu as well? Serve fondue, or Jell-O mold salads! OK, maybe no one would eat those. But I could get down with some salmon mousse. Sauced is such a fun place to hang out, but only a kind of fun place to eat. Methinks more shtick on the menu and less Southern fusion would remedy that wrong.