First Look: Simon's
By focusing more on its strengths, the sleek new Midtown eatery could become a neighborhood standby
Located at the perennially rotating restaurant corner of 5th and Juniper, the new eatery Simon's aims to do what even Ludacris couldn't: stick around in a neighborhood with a seriously ephemeral dining scene. While Midtown's restaurant landscape can often seem to depend on the Fox Theatre crowd that floods in from OTP and tourists in search of Margaret Mitchell, in-town dwellers know that people do live in Midtown, and they have their chosen spots. Simon's elevated patio calls to the thirsty neighbor and stranger alike, and all things considered, the restaurant should have the ingredients for long-term success despite previous establishments' difficulties in holding down the corner.
The interior is sleek with clean black and gray lines for the after-work set and enough shimmer for date night. Designed by Nigel Ingleton, the bar reads like the little black dress of dining sexy, evocative, and somehow still familiar. Artistic representations of Atlanta's skyline surround diners, and the reflective crystal bauble chandeliers indicate that Simon's isn't too stuffy to appeal to the city's badder and boujee-er instincts.
The restaurant's owner, Simon Guobadia (an investor with LDV Hospitality's American Cut in Buckhead), envisions his new venture as a "Southern take on classic American dishes." A former CPA, Guobadia made the decision to transfer into the restaurant industry from the corporate world a few years ago, and designed Simon's menu to represent the food he loves.
Appetizers range from mussels with red curry and tarragon to Thai chili glazed baby back ribs, while entrees include items such as a Springer Mountain roasted chicken and crab angel hair pasta with uni and jalape̱o. And though each of these sound enticing, truth be told, it's hard to see how they're particularly classic or southern. Nonetheless, almost everyone (minus perhaps vegetarians) can locate a dish that speaks to them from this menu, and in this way Simon's seems on track to meet its goal of serving the neighborhood.
On the night I ate at Simon's, there were some hits and some misses. For starters, the service was near-perfect. Waitstaff was attentive, enthusiastic, and comprehensive in their descriptions of the dishes. The On Juniper cocktail certainly did its namesake proud: botanical gin, champagne, mint and lime offers a surprisingly refreshing new take on the mojito. The 5th & Fashion leaned a bit too hard on the black walnut bitters, obscuring the rich bourbon and vibrant orange notes classic cocktail aficionados will expect.
The starters I tried also offered high and low points. Mussels with red curry and tarragon ($9) needed a substantial hit of acid. The sauce was a tad too heavy for the shellfish, and left me in search of that bright surprise that mussels need to satisfy the palate. Thai chili glazed baby back ribs ($10), however, were the star of the evening. The glaze was rich and spicy and the meat pulled off the bone with buttery ease. Fried slices of garlic complemented the quick pickle on the Fresno peppers, creating a perfectly balanced bite.
But not all dishes found this balance. The catfish with hushpuppies and purple cabbage coleslaw ($16) tiptoes up to the edge of being too heavy. Though the catfish was fried perfectly, the batter had too much salt. In contrast, the hushpuppies have a nice flavor, but their centers were slightly undercooked. The dish begged for a vibrant note, and while the coleslaw it was served with is solid as a standalone item, it doesn't quite provide this needed component. Another splash of vinegar would help to hit that comforting spot the side traditionally gives to fried foods.
Grilled flank steak with pecorino fries ($17) offers a satisfyingly smoky sear on the meat, and the pecorino fries deliver. It was puzzling, however, that the dish didn't come with any condiment: no house-made aoli, no chimichurri, no grain mustard, not even a ramekin of ketchup for the fries. This one addition of something acidic would have elevated the dish from a solid plate of food to a meal that makes folks return.
These small kinks shouldn't stop Simon's from improving and evolving into their vision as a neighborhood destination. In almost all cases, what the food at Simon's needs is as simple as a slice of lemon or a splash of white wine. And maybe this is coming; there has already been a revision to the kitchen line-up since my visit, with new executive chef Shamir Wahl taking over the reins from previous chef Allysa Storms. This is Wahl's first executive chef position, and he hopes to add a bit of seasonal flair to the dishes.
The menu, however, won't see any major changes from the original. Wahl has been tasked with continuing to execute Guobadia's food vision, leading a restaurant set on letting the owner's food choices rather than the chef's drive the conversation. As public relations and media coordinator Nazy Gravahi explains, "Simon's doesn't plan to be a chef-focused restaurant; we want it to be about the food." But in a field where expertise is important, one wonders why these two ideas are considered mutually exclusive.
Under the direction of general manager Tammy Jones, Simon's has the service profile to become that easy, cozy place around the corner to meet up for happy hour. And starting this month, they've added brunch complete with a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar with an array of pepper-infused vodkas and garnishes. The aim is to provide guests with not only a drink that fits their tastes, but also an interactive space where neighbors become regulars.
Rather than offering up precious, overly serious food, Gravahi explains, Simon's hopes to be the spot where diners exhale and enjoy the charms of Midtown. But the restaurant would probably benefit from dispensing with the "Southern take on classic American dishes" , which doesn't describe their food or what they're already executing well. Instead, I look forward to seeing Simon's embrace its eclectic, shinier side. After all, it's that eclecticism, that playful sparkle, that locals love about their neighborhood.
Simon's, 793 Juniper St. N.E. 404-698-3715. www.simonsatl.com.