Restaurant Review: Gunshow
A fun but uneven experience at Kevin Gillespie's lauded eatery
When I tried to get a reservation at "Top Chef" alum Kevin Gillespie's Glenwood Park restaurant Gunshow, the only available spot was three weeks away at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday. If Atlanta were like New York or San Francisco, where reservations are routinely hard to get across the board, such a wait would be normal. In fact, for a restaurant like Gunshow, which recently landed on GQ's "25 Best New Restaurants in America, 2014" and Esquire magazine's "The 25 Best New Restaurants in America" and is owned by a TV star, the wait would be expected. In Atlanta, however, a three-week lead-time at any restaurant is not the norm.
When Gunshow opened in May 2013, people were excited to experience this unique new concept in which chefs served dishes dim sum-style that they were responsible for from start to finish. Gillespie says he wanted to "create an environment where the diners are disarmed." To enjoy this disarming dinner theater, Atlanta diners were required to adapt to a number of the restaurant's quirks, such as its unpredictable, go-with-the-flow dining experience and — as we experienced first-hand — the weeks-long waits for a front row seat.
By Atlanta standards, Gunshow's hours of operation are unusual. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 6 to 9 p.m. Why only three hours a night, five days a week? When Gillespie opened Gunshow, he lived just a mile away from the restaurant and noticed Atlanta's maddening traffic would make it nearly impossible for diners to get to the restaurant before 6 p.m. The decision to close at 9 p.m., which is much earlier than the industry standard of 10 p.m. or later, came from Gillespie's desire to be a good neighbor. Because so many people lived within earshot of the restaurant, Gillespie says he didn't want the crowds to disturb the residents. The final element, the restaurant's five-day workweek, is about quality of life for his staff, which, Gillespie believes, correlates to the quality of the workmanship.
It's hard to argue with Gillespie's logic, considering that nearly two years have gone by and Gunshow continues to fill up each night. Even we were excited enough by the concept to name it "Best Chef-to-Table Restaurant" in Creative Loafing's 2014 Best of Atlanta issue. As Gillespie turns his attention toward opening new restaurant Terminus City and capable executive chef Joseph Ward soldiers on at Gunshow, the crowds show no sign of dwindling. Gillespie told me the majority of those crowds are return business, which surprises me because, while the concept and staff are world class, Gunshow's food needs work.
There is a lot to love about this place. The space has tons of windows, tall ceilings, an enormous open kitchen, and feels like some artist or musician's New York loft. But it isn't stuffy. The vibe is so casual that I'd feel comfortable wearing jeans and sneakers here. If you are a "Top Chef" loyalist looking for a glimpse of the chef and maybe an autograph, Gillespie says he is always happy to pose for a picture.
The chefs and cooks are the heart of what makes this concept so interesting. Each person is responsible for his or her own dishes from start to finish. They have to make it and sell it the customers, which is easier for some than others. It can be awkward when you say no to one of them. It makes you feel like you are hurting their feelings.
Another unfortunate side effect of having the chefs peddle plates from table to table is that the food often arrives tepid. Gillespie says they try to get ahead of that by making sure certain dishes make a set amount of rounds and by creating others — like the roasted vegetable salad — that can be served at room temperature. Even so, correct serving temperatures are still an issue. An otherwise brilliant, creamy squid ink fettuccine with breadcrumbs, chorizo oil, springy calamari, and lemon butter emulsion was cold by the time it reached our table.
Some dishes are just poorly executed. A mélange of autumn and winter beets and pickled cherries became cloying with the addition of sweet pumpkin butter. A plate of Vietnamese shaking pork would have been flawless if only there had been less of the salty marinade. It was so overpowering it distracted from how wonderfully tender the meat was. In the lackluster beef bourguignonne for breakfast, however — beef stew covered with an egg — the meat was far too tough to enjoy and the vegetables were overcooked to mushy. To be fair, the same chef turned out a fantastic roasted foie gras paired with quince and almonds "a couple of ways," which included pickling and a sweet puree swiped on the plate.
Gunshow's tableside theme continues with the cocktails, which are prepared atop a roving bar cart. Bartender Mercedes O'Brien's menu normally features four cocktails and a punch. The Toasted Old Fashioned, made with bourbon, bitters, burnt sugar syrup, bruleed cinnamon sticks, and flamed orange peel, smacks you in the face with sophisticated winter flavors and just a hint of sweetness. Gunshow's wine and beer list on the other hand seems like an afterthought and could use some attention.
Value, or lack thereof, has been one of Gunshow's biggest criticisms from the beginning. While most dishes are appetizer-sized and cost $10-$20, there are outliers like the aforementioned foie gras, which rang in at $28. On one visit, Gillespie rounded the room with a cart of rosy prime rib, custardy popovers, and silky gravy. I could eat that dish for dinner every Sunday night for the rest of my life. The price tag, however — $35 for two thin slices and small wedge of popover on what looked like a salad plate — shocked me out of my beefy afterglow. When asked about the dish, Gillespie said the prime rib was a test run for the dish they are doing for 70 diners at Christmas and defended it because he believes in sourcing only the best ingredients. No matter how delicious the beef was, the dish was grossly overpriced and, frankly, a ballsy move for Gillespie to charge that much since affordability has been one of Gunshow's selling points from the outset. Our party of four spent $300, before tip (tax is included in the prices).
Gillespie argues that the markup is warranted because of the quality of the food and workmanship. But after the wildly inconsistent parade of dishes we were served, I can't help but wonder if the markup is an entertainment fee in disguise. Is he charging so much simply because he can get away with it? Gunshow's concept is novel for Atlanta and people have proven that they are willing to wait in line and pay admission to the "Top Chef" Kevin show, but I think he wants more than that for himself and for Gunshow. And I am pretty sure Atlanta does too. ??