"This is so cool," our waiter says as he puts a chimney-shaped dish on the table in front of us. "If you eat these really quick, you can blow smoke out your nose like a dragon!"
The dish contains a pile of icy peas interspersed with flecks of Parmesan, which have been frozen with liquid nitrogen and are wafting that weird dry-ice smoke. It's almost as if the dish were the stage beneath a heavy-metal band. My brother and I shovel fistfuls of the stuff into our mouths, blowing smoke out our noses, and then move on to smoke rings. I haven't had this much fun with my food since I outgrew Pop Rocks.
A night at Element is full of delights such as this. A thin taro chip arrives, topped with cubes of clear gel. "Chips and salsa," the waiter says. Upon contact with your tongue, the gel dissolves into a bright tomato-and-citrus liquid, tasting perfectly of salsa. And these dishes, the peas and the faux salsa, are just freebies the kitchen has sent out to whet the appetite.
When Richard Blais left town last year to pursue a consulting job in Miami, foodies mourned. Over the last six years, first at Fishbone, then at his eponymous BLAIS and then at One Midtown Kitchen, Blais had a major hand in giving Atlanta its culinary identity. He married techniques learned in the perfectionist kitchens of the French Laundry and Daniel with the boundary-pushing vision he encountered during a stint in the kitchen at El Bulli in Spain. Blais was the face of molecular gastronomy in Atlanta, and regardless of how people felt about food cooked with liquid nitrogen, most understood when he left that the city had lost an important player.
After rumors buzzed of his return, it came as a bit of a shock to learn that he had landed at Element, a tapas restaurant in Midtown that had been struggling to formulate any distinctive personality. Blais and his team shut down the restaurant for a mere couple of days before reopening with the words "gastro lounge and food lab" attached to the name. Since then, people who care passionately about food in Atlanta have been in conniption fits of joy, raving about the creations coming from this modest little kitchen.
There's good reason for the raves. Some of Blais' dishes teeter on the brink of perfection, straying only enough to demand a little more attention. The sous vide pork belly, having been slow-cooked in a vacuum-sealed bag, is meltingly delicious, possibly the sexiest texture I have ever put in my mouth. Served over a chiffonade of cooked lettuce and next to a sinful amount of silky, smoky mayonnaise with balls of sweet tomato on the side, this is as good as BLT gets.
During an earlier visit, a pyramid of sweetbreads caught my affections, crisply fried and drizzled with a little chili and garlic and peppercorns. I ignored the mayo variation on the bottom of the dish – without it, this is as close as I've come to the General Tso's sweetbreads of my imagination.
Carbonized octopus, sitting on a wedge of cucumber, is both tender and charred, with a texture as far from rubber as imaginable. The naked mussels, which smoke in their bowl under plastic wrap as you watch, make for an addictive stew of potato, smoke and chorizo, with the plump mussels sweetly punctuating the phrase.
With all this experimentation, there are bound to be missteps. As much as I tried to enjoy chocolate and anchovies (two tastes I dearly love), their fates should never have brought them together. The pungent fish simply clashes with the bitter chocolate; the best qualities of both are obliterated. The foie gras was bland and texturally strange in a lumpy kind of way, and strung together in a manner that made me think it hadn't been well-cleaned. The panna cotta – served with Coca-Cola, which is flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen and then smashed – is cooler in concept than reality. The Coke is at first too cold, burning to the tongue, then melds in a gummy mass that makes the dish hard to eat, and finally melts into a syrup that tastes strongly of freezer burn.
I am more than slightly ashamed to admit it, but there's something about the decor (or lack thereof) at Element that bothers me. I am always one to put substance above style and am continually annoyed with Atlanta's obsession with high restaurant design. But sitting surrounded by drab olive/brown walls at unclothed wooden tables eating some of the most conceptual food this town has to offer seems somehow wrong. If any chef in this town deserves ultra-modern surroundings in which to serve his food, it's Blais.
I also have a sick feeling that maybe, just maybe, the lack of wiz-bang decor is part of what's keeping the droves of Atlanta diners away. There's plenty on this menu for the less adventurous – roast chicken, squash ravioli. On recent weekend evenings, the place has been sparsely seated, despite mostly fantastic service from a team headed by maitre d' Jeremy Iles.
And yet there's something endearing about the lack of pretension in the surroundings, and I get the sense from Blais, as he bops around the dining room speaking to customers, that he is genuinely happy to be back in Atlanta, and that his desire to cook for us outweighs any question of "concept" and "theme" in the restaurant's design. Even his menu has a bit of whimsy to it, with his hand-scrawled writing suggesting notes from a mad scientist in the lab. He is gracious, modest and enthusiastic to a fault, and after years in the game he has not lost the twinkle of excitement that comes from pushing boundaries, of creating on a grand scale.
It's that exact quality I have been missing in so much New American cooking, a cuisine that often suffers from too much caution, not enough vision. Blais' food may not be perfect, but it is bold, and infinitely fascinating, and the most fun you're likely to have at a table anywhere in this city.
Uncertainties aside, Blais should follow his muse wherever it takes him.
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