First Look: Gypsy Kitchen

See and be seen at Buckhead Atlanta's new tapas joint

Inside, a life-sized metal bull looms over the bar and a sweeping portrait reminiscent of National Geographic's iconic Afghan girl stares hauntingly into your soul, beckoning guests to quench their sense for adventure and tapas within (or maybe she's giving the side-eye to being called "gypsy" in 2014). A mere six weeks in, Gypsy Kitchen is a glitzy, boisterous ode to the Iberian Peninsula. Exotic Indian spices, seafood, and Moroccan-inspired cooking techniques reflect the beating heart of Spain, and Gypsy Kitchen's mission is to try to transport you there.

From Southern Proper Hospitality, the group that gave us the Big Ketch, Smokebelly BBQ, and Milton's in Alpharetta, Gypsy Kitchen is located in the new Buckhead Atlanta shopping and dining district on Peachtree Road. Easy valet parking and an elevator lift to the second floor lead to wraparound patios with sweeping views up and down Peachtree Road. The patio closer to Peachtree is spacious and open-aired; the other is enclosed, cozy, and heated. For now, reservations are recommended, even on weekdays — a recent Wednesday evening produced a two-hour wait.

Stepping inside Gypsy Kitchen feels like being dropped into a genie bottle decorated by one of the Desperate Housewives, or at least by a person one of the Desperate Housewives paid to decorate. Trendy geometric patterns and mosaic tiles adorn the bright turquoise walls. Hints of copper and deep-red leather accent the wooden tables. Stacks of vintage suitcases above the bar evoke the nomadic traveller theme Gypsy Kitchen is apparently going for. Intricate Moorish lanterns and heavy, medieval-looking iron chandeliers dangle from high ceilings, giving the room a moody, ambient glow.

Gypsy Kitchen's lighting and decor may look romantic, but the atmosphere that comes along with? Not so much. Hustling servers in heavy-duty canvas aprons look like they're about to go weld things. Beautiful people out to be seen are everywhere. Large groups of wine-swilling women are responsible for a cacophony of sorority squeals and spontaneous woohoos heard throughout the dining room. There are young, couture-clad couples on double or triple dates alongside members of the older Buckhead set craning their necks to see who's there and who's not. This is not a casual tapas house in Spain, and it is not trying to be.

Chef Randy Lewis presides over a kitchen, which shares a prep area with adjacent sibling restaurant the Southern Gentleman, which is slated to open in early December. The menu is divided among small plates, sharing plates, and plates for the whole table. "Snacks & Things on Toast" is a section of nibbles to munch on while having a drink at the expansive bar. The sweet and savory Marcona almond "Nutella" and shaved chorizo toast ($5) should hit the spot.

"Cheese and Cured Meats" ($5-$16 per selection) lists four Spanish cheeses and four cured meats to mix and match. We went with a generous portion of bold and spicy Valdeon blue and classic jamón Iberico. Both were served on a rustic wooden slab with quince paste and Marcona almonds. The shaved ham, which is made from prized heritage-breed pigs, is pricey at $16 a pop, but nothing else in this restaurant tastes more like Spain.

"Platos Pequeños" come out very soon after ordering, even on a busy night with a wait. Confit Spanish octopus ($15), cooked for hours in a lard-based consommé, is super tender and smoky by way of the grill and smoked paprika. Crowd-pleasing shrimp ($12) are stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in crispy, shredded pastry dough called kaitafi, and served with a saffron aioli. Littleneck clams ($13) look gorgeous piled in a cast-iron dish with white beans, but the bland Manzanilla sherry broth failed to deliver any flavor at all, let alone the saffron its description promised.

"Sharing Plates" turn out to be only slightly larger than the small plates. Lewis wraps North Carolina trout ($24) in salty Serrano ham and finishes it with a simple fennel and Spanish olive salad and good olive oil. Paella-fried calasparra rice ($20) with shrimp, spicy chorizo, peas, and a chorizo-fried egg sounds great in theory, but without the soccarat — that caramelized crusty layer under most paellas — it's mostly just a lackluster pile of fried rice.

"Platos a la Planxa" choices are meant to feed a table of 2-4 people in one fell swoop. There is a whole Branzino ($55) or a 20-ounce barrel cut beef tenderloin ($95), but most tables seem to order tapas style, sharing mostly small plates.

The beverage program led by bar manager Michael Searles stands out, and not just because of that gigantic bull. Wines are mostly Old World varietals picked to complement bold Spanish flavors. For example, the fruit-forward Rotllan Torra Priorat pairs nicely with tasty "Spanish Cigars" ($8), aka Medjool dates stuffed with Cabrales blue cheese and jamón Serrano. Gypsy Kitchen's cocktails are interesting and balanced ("Slammin,'" according to a table of dude bros nearby). The Around the Fire ($11) is a moody blend of smoky mezcal, Cherry Heering, sherry, citrus, and bitters. The Spice Trader cocktail ($10) with bourbon, honey, cayenne, apricot liqueur, lime, and ginger beer delivers multiple layers of flavor. Gypsy Kitchen also has a small but carefully chosen beer list.

A dessert like the chocolate pistachio cake ($8) with luscious white wine caramel, crunchy candied pistachios, and perfumed rosewater Chantilly cream is a dreamy end to a night full of eating. After dinner drinks include a varied selection of Sherries and amaro. At the end of the night, the check comes in an adorable little saffron tin (maybe there was saffron in the clams after all ...).

Gypsy Kitchen glimmers in its newness. Its best features are great cocktails and speedy service, but mostly it's a loud, see-and-be-seen trip best taken with friends, a few cast-iron plates at a time. If the stereotype for a "Buckhead tapas restaurant" exists, Gypsy Kitchen is definitely it.

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