First Look: The Lawrence

Does the new Midtown restaurant live up to the hype?

The idea of writing a “First Look” of the Lawrence at this point seems almost comically late. The principals involved — chef Shane Devereux and co-owners Patrick La Bouff and Darren Carr — have been collaborators in an ongoing supper club known as Dinner Party for at least a couple of years now. At the beginning of the year, when Besha Rodell named La Bouff one of 20 Atlantans to watch in 2012, the restaurant was slated to open in mid-January and already hosting Dinner Party-like events at the space. The point being that more than a few Atlantans have already had more than a passing glance at this place and the food coming out of it for months now, even though the restaurant has only “officially” been open for a few weeks.

The buildup and hype has paid off for the restaurant — it’s already packing the restaurant full of eager Midtowners for dinner even on a Wednesday night. There’s no doubt that the insider glamour of Dinner Party earned more than a few of these early followers. Who wouldn’t be dazzled by dishes like prosciutto-wrapped lobster, especially when you’re sitting at a long table set center court in a basketball coliseum or in an airplane hangar? The word about those parties passed around like legend.

The hype kept building with parties in the Lawrence space itself. I was at an art opening at Barbara Archer Gallery earlier this year where a bus had been arranged to whisk folks from the gallery to the Lawrence. A band played in the background and the open bar was serving up some sweet, fizzy gin cocktail. The whole arrangement was so much fun that one could scarcely notice that the stuffed poussin with foie butter being served tasted like it had been sitting on the plate for 20 minutes and the band sounded like a children’s toy rattling in an echo chamber. Those are hardly offenses to note for a dinner party, but they’re not what one hopes for at one of the most hyped new restaurants of the year.

It seems fitting that the first night I tried to go to the Lawrence since its “official” opening, it was closed for a private party. Old habits die hard, I suppose. The next time I found an opportunity to go, it was a Wednesday night. I’d been at the office well past 8. I was tired, irritable, hungry, and, to be perfectly honest, ready to look for a crack in the hype. I didn’t care about the dazzling stories about basketball courts and airplane hangars. I didn’t care about being dazzled by a glamorous party. I wanted to sit down at the bar by myself and be dazzled on the plate itself. And here’s the thing — they nailed it.

The chef sent out an amuse-bouche of brunoised tomato shortly after I sat down. Mixologist Eric Simpkins was serving the bar and stirred together a Lady Lawrence, a light and spring-appropriate cocktail that balances out the sweetness of crème de cassis with tea-infused vodka. I ordered the fennel salted crispy pig ear with some skepticism; it’s a showy part to use but it takes the right preparation to get that cartilage appetizingly tender. But here it was in a pile in front of me, shaved paper thin and fried to a greasy, soft crunch. It is exactly the sort of salty finger food that one hopes for in a bar snack.

The red romaine small plate is anything but the obligatory salad on the menu. Arranged around the delicate romaine are cubes of ripe beets and a couple lumps of mild, buttery Burrata. A notably sweet balsamic ties it together. It’s the kind of carefully eloquent dish that one expects from a vegetable-centric place like Cakes & Ale. The duck tongue carnitas were dialed into taco bliss — the tender crunch of the carnitas accompanied by bright notes of tomatillo and the sharpness of pickled shallots.

Around the time of my second cocktail, I finally relaxed and let myself accept the fact that the hype is more or less on point for the Lawrence. The couple sitting next to me at the bar were so excited about each dish that came out that it seemed they couldn’t shut up about it. OK, perhaps I was still in a bad mood, but the place was doing everything right.

The atmosphere feels polished without being shellacked of character, swank without being anywhere near stuffy, thankfully less noisy than the Midtown norm without being quiet. Devereux’s voice and imposing presence on the line adds a bit of theater to the open kitchen at the center of the room. La Bouff runs plates and checks on tables in a foppish bow tie. There’s still a hiccup here and there — the host seems to be absent from the front door for long stretches of time, leaving newcomers stranded in an already small space near the bar — but they’re obviously on the right track.

By the time my entrée hit the bar in front of me, I was already sold. Then I had a bite of the fork-ready tender pork cheek and crisp spaetzle wet with herby, Belgian ale jus and it sealed the deal. If I hadn’t been full and the restaurant wasn’t closing, I would’ve ordered another four-course meal all over again.

It’ll be telling to see how the Lawrence progresses. The night I was there, the cocktail list was abbreviated into four classics — gin fizz, corpse reviver, Sazerac, pisco sour — aside from the Lady Lawrence. Simpkins, who ran the bar at Trois and Drinkshop, will clearly develop something more creative soon. Thankfully, it seems that this dinner party isn’t over, but just getting started.