Review: Rare Soul Food Tapas

Soul food tapas rise from the ashes on Piedmont Avenue

If you ever visited the original incarnation of Rare, there's an eerie quality to returning to the newly reopened restaurant. While the bar area and dining room have changed slightly due to the fire that destroyed much of the building in April 2008, almost everything else about the place is exactly as it was when it opened in late 2006. The food is the same. The service is the same. The vibe is minutely less funky, but basically the same.

Rare has always had a strong sense of place. Where else other than Atlanta would you find a restaurant that combined authentically executed soul food and the urban populism of tapas? The original design of the place was inspired: a dark warren of vintage tchotchkes and red velvet, 1930s cartoons playing on old televisions and projected onto the walls of the loungy, pillow-laden back room.

Now, when you step in from the street, the bar area is sleeker, with less of those original touches, and the trip down the hallway to the room in the back (an unlikely hike without a reservation) reveals a sparser, less opulent collection of padded platforms to recline upon. But it's still dark, the old movies still play against the brick walls, and the vibe is still downright sexy. As a destination, Rare screams with potential – a sultry setting for date night or a more social atmosphere for a larger party (the bed-like platforms organized around low tables is simply more fun than traditional seating).

Chef Wesley Davenport, who took over from original chef Anthony Sanders in 2007, had worked at Justin's and the Georgian Terrace hotel before taking over at Rare. Davenport says he always planned to return to the restaurant once it reopened. Back in the kitchen, he's turning out the same dishes that made Rare so cool to begin with.

Rare could easily fall into the trap of too-cute fusions, but the food skirts the problem, getting just close enough to be fun without diving headfirst into bad flavor puns. The cultural mishmash of collard green pot stickers, shot through with ginger and served with potlikker as dipping sauce, shouldn't work but it does – the dish remains focused on the tangy common ground of two cultures. From there, the menu generally sticks to its Southern roots, presenting well-executed, upscale, tiny versions of soul food classics.

Buffalo chicken livers have crisp edges and creamy centers, and just the right tang thanks to a riotously good homemade hot sauce. That hot sauce also appears on a plate of fried guinea hen, juicy and crackly with a pleasing dose of grease and salt.

The BLT salad provides a study in textural contrasts, with juicy fried green tomatoes showered in shredded lettuce and crumbled bacon, with a touch of creamy dressing.

But Davenport falls into many of the same traps that Sanders did, which are mainly a function of ingredient quality. A canned peach filling sabotages the pleasing crumble of a fluffy biscuit topping on the peach cobbler. There's way too much sugar in the watery deviled eggs. Goopy sauce and texturally challenged shrimp ("were they dried out and reconstituted?" my dining companion asks) disrupt the pleasure of flavorful, quality grits on the shrimp and grits plate.

Here's a tip for those looking to go into the small plates business: Just because you don't offer traditional appetizer and entrée dining doesn't mean you don't need to course out the food. At Rare, I asked the waiter if the kitchen would pace our meal for us, and he assured me they would. Fifteen minutes later, I had almost everything I'd ordered (over seven plates) piled in front of me, making it impossible to get to most of it while it was hot. "Can you ask the kitchen to hold up?" I cried, afraid my table would collapse under the strain. But a minute later he returned, sheepishly holding my final dish.

You should disregard much of what's on Rare's website, including the phone number; the site hasn't been updated since pre-fire days. Also, disregard the website's wine list. Currently, the wine list is "being developed" and house wines are all that's available. Cocktails are garishly colored candy-bombs – fun, but hardly food friendly.

What's telling about the website is that the old menu is still mainly correct. Rare hit upon a formula that worked back in 2007, and it's sticking with it in 2010. I've always wished that the kitchen would ramp up its focus on ingredients just a notch, because the juxtaposition it's hit upon – of classic soul food dishes with an upscale framing – deserves a revival.