Restaurant review: Lunacy Black Market

Paul Luna returns with a downtown restaurant steeped in personality

On a recent Saturday evening, downtown Atlanta's Mitchell Street had plenty of open parking spaces. The stretch of storefronts near the corner of Spring Street was mainly quiet, except for one. In the front window of Lunacy Black Market, an artist was visible drawing in charcoal on an easel. Beyond him, in the homelike hodgepodge of a dining room, a few customers ate at tables; some lounged on the floor leaning up against comfy couches as if they were in their own living rooms.

The couches bump up against low coffee tables and a scattering of mismatched tables and chairs. The walls are adorned with items ranging from a portrait of Michael Jackson to long kimonos to a decorative treble clef perched behind a rotating display of greeting cards. Large paper lanterns hang from the high ceilings.

There is very little about Lunacy Black Market that feels familiar in the sense of a restaurant experience. But there's a lot about it that feels familiar in the more personal sense. It's like dinner at a friend's house. A slightly crazy friend, but it's not like you weren't warned. The place is called Lunacy, after all.

Many readers will be familiar with the story of Paul Luna, who first came to Atlanta as chef at Bice in the space that is now the Oceanaire. Luna then proceeded to open a string of restaurants using various puns on his last name as titles (Loca Luna and Eclipse di Luna survive, although he is no longer involved). His penchant for wild behavior, in and out of his restaurants, has left him with a reputation that probably does a disservice to his huge culinary influence on the city. I have no idea if he actually danced naked on tables at any of his Luna-themed restaurants, but I do know that before Paul Luna, few people in Atlanta had ever even heard of tapas, let alone tasted them.

His newest venture – after leaving Atlanta for California, writing a children's book, and then biking across the country – is as quirky as the man himself. On that first Saturday evening, a few minutes after being sat, the slim, slightly serpentine chef with his long silver braid pulled up a chair and asked if we lived in Atlanta. When we responded that we did, he said, "Good. Because I'm running for mayor." He went on to explain that the current system is corrupt, that "gentrification is bullshit," and that we can only make promises to ourselves because promises to another can never be kept.

It's possible that the entire point of Lunacy Black Market is a front, like the name suggests, but perhaps a front for his mayoral campaign rather than an illicit activity. It's hard to see how he could possibly make money here: The prices are so low, it appears money is of no interest to Luna. When I say low, I don't mean by regular standards, I mean by value menu standards. That Saturday evening, my guest and I ate so much we couldn't finish dessert. Our bill, sans wine (the restaurant is still waiting on a license) came to $27.

What we got for that $27 was far better than any value meal, and better than much of the upscale food available around town. Luna's cooking style is deceptively simple – a potato soup, flavored slightly with garlic and stippled with fresh thyme. A dollop of fresh, house-made ricotta swims beneath the surface, ready to add just the right touch of creamy personality to the bowl.

That same ricotta shows up on a plate of braised beef, piled primly next to a smattering of roasted red peppers, the meat's juices pooling on the plate and mixing with the cheese. Scooped up into a mouthful, the three ingredients – sweet, umami musk and milky comfort – make for a disarmingly straightforward but rewarding combination. The cost? $2.95. At lunch, the same dish finds its way between the layers of a small bun. The slider-style sandwich costs $1.85.

A plate of fried okra seemed halfway dehydrated, losing the slime and leaving the vegetable with only its green, nutty flavor.

The evening's splurge came in the form of sautéed shrimp, which cost a whopping $3.95 and were so delicately cooked it was as if I'd never really had shrimp before. The pearly snap of the outer flesh yielded to a delicate, soft interior, far less bouncy and bland than shrimp's norm.

Between bites of bursting roasted mushrooms, meaty and vibrant under a light crushed tomato sauce, we were visited by Luna occasionally and waited on by his partner, Cynthia Thomet. Thomet's calm presence seems to balance the room, making for a chemistry that teeters on the edge of bizarre but never quite spills into chaos.

As I walked back out into the early spring evening, I remarked to my friend, "I feel as though I've been eating the same meal over and over for years. This actually feels different." Atlanta has few true originals, and sometimes the only antidote to the monotony of predictable upscale food is home-cooked meals and visits to Buford Highway. Lunacy Black Market provides another kind of respite – a restaurant so steeped in personality it borders on madness.

How refreshing.