Restaurant Review: The Luminary

Chef Eli Kirshtein’s disappointing French-American brasserie falls short on all fronts

When chef Eli Kirshtein returned from competing on Bravo’s “Top Chef” in 2009, Atlanta was eager to see how the young chef would capitalize on his 15 minutes of fame. The then-25-year-old was among the show’s five finalists before a sausage-wrapped lamb dish sent him packing in episode 12. Before “Top Chef,” Kirshtein graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked for notable Atlanta chefs including Joël Antunes and Kevin Rathbun. He was also the protégé of “Top Chef” alum Richard Blais. “I’ve run four different, four star restaurants in Atlanta,” Blais wrote on the show’s blog in 2009. “And it’s honest to say that Eli was responsible for a handful of those stars. He was the text book definition of a great sous-chef.”

Instead of settling at an Atlanta restaurant after “Top Chef,” Kirshtein pursued consulting gigs in Singapore. Between trips and public appearances, he would pop up at Atlanta food events and mention plans to open a restaurant of his own. Several years passed, however, and no restaurant appeared. People, myself included, eventually began to wonder: “Where’s Eli? What’s he doing?”

In August 2014, Kirshtein and business partner Jeremy Iles opened French-American brasserie the Luminary in Krog Street Market. At first glance, the Luminary’s menu appears classically French — the kind of restaurant Atlanta has been hungry for. The menu features standards such as steak frites and duck confit, as well as oysters from the restaurant’s sparse raw bar. Many of these dishes have some sort of twist. Kirshtein calls this “regionalized” French-American cuisine, which explains Southern touches such as Alabama Duroc ham in the croque monsieur. Basque and Asian flavors have popped up on the Luminary’s menu, too. Instead of feeling fresh, these riffs come off as disingenuous, different just for the sake of being different. Many dishes are poorly executed, a reminder that it’s best to conquer the basics before trying to make a classic your own.

An appetizer of creamy, pistachio-crusted chicken liver mousse with pickled mushrooms and stale baguette was served too cold to spread. The overly acidic mushrooms made my mouth twist up like the end of a balloon. Sad-looking smoked chicken wings, thrown on a plate with curry crème fraîche, chopped cilantro, and scallion, were flabby and bland.

Other starters, such as snails with tatsoi in beurre blanc and a play on poutine with gnocchi instead of French fries, hint at Kirshtein’s creative potential. The slippery snails were tender, and I liked the bright pops of the green vegetable against the rich sauce, but the burn from undercooked white wine overshadowed the creatures’ delicate flavor. The homemade gnocchi tossed with gooey cheddar cheese curds, oyster mushrooms, and an earthy foie gras sauce was everything a poutine-inspired dish should be: saucy, cheesy, rich. But the gnocchi were so soft they practically disintegrated on the fork.

Mushy monkfish tossed with squeaky calamari set atop overcooked Rancho Gordo flageolet beans came off as an anchorless jumble of soft textures. A riff on Southern fried chicken made with a brined rabbit leg was in line with Kirshtein’s regionalized French concept, but the crusty breading and an overpowering, bitter sherry gastrique did nothing to enhance the mild rabbit meat. A pile of excellent homemade fries with shatteringly crisp exteriors stole the show from a sliced hanger steak that tasted gamey and undercooked.

The Luminary has no pastry chef. It shows. A quarter-sized disc of crust with caramel ganache quenelles and chocolate sorbet was originally called a caramel ganache tart on the menu. They dropped the word tart shortly before press time — a good decision. A pastry coin on a plate with a bit of ice cream and caramel is not a tart. It’s an $8 disappointment masquerading as dessert. The Luminary’s Paris-Brest, typically an elegant confection found in French pâtisseries, looked and tasted more like a soggy, freezer-section cream puff. For a restaurant at this price point, where the average cost of an appetizer is $11 and most entrées exceed $20, having a full-time pastry chef should be a priority.

The bar program here lost much of its panache when award-winning mixologist Ian Cox departed in December, but its wine list is strong. While some menus shy away from vintages, Kirshtein, who does the wine buying, includes both vintage and non-vintage selections. The menu focuses on domestic and French biodynamic wines made by small producers at a variety of prices. Many of them are affordable, like the Semillon from hometown boys Dirty and Rowdy. If beer is more your thing, the restaurant has many draft and bottled choices.

The 7-month-old restaurant occupies Krog Street Market’s southwest corner along with neighboring Craft Izakaya. The Luminary is divided into four sections: a bar area to the left of the entrance, and the main dining room, a raw bar, and an outdoor patio overlooking Krog Street to the right. Perhaps it’s because the space is long and narrow, but this layout lacks flow. There are cool design elements such as a neon cursive sign that spells “The Luminary” on the wall behind the raw bar and clusters of white dome lights on the ceiling that are reminiscent of sea foam. Brasserie-style touches include shiny white subway tiles and an ornate bar backed by a huge antique-style mirror.

On my first visit to the Luminary, I stood outside for nearly 10 minutes before anyone came to the door. Kirshtein was standing at the end of the bar just a few feet away. When a hostess finally appeared, her responses to even the most basic questions came with heavy, irritated sighs. I quickly regretted asking whether the raw bar was fair game for walk-ins. “You can eat anywhere you want!” she snapped. But service is not always so horrific. The wait-staff can be especially warm thanks to Iles. As the Luminary’s general manager, the La Grotta alum exudes fine dining charm and grace as he floats about the room, attending to guests.

Iles’ gracious service and the quality of the wine list cannot make up for Kirshtein’s shortcomings as a first-time restaurateur and chef. French cuisine should warm you from the inside out, but the Luminary’s overall lack of passion, personality, skill, and purpose left me cold. I have to believe Kirshtein can do better; his efforts at the Luminary do little to showcase his capability as a chef. After trying most of the menu, I’m still left wondering: “Where’s Eli? What’s he doing?” (1 out of 5 stars)