I knew something was different when the artichokes arrived.
On a Friday night at KR SteakBar, the artichokes just happened to be the first dish to make it to our table. What was this? Just a few skinny artichoke tops and puffed-up rounds of lemon? I took a tentative bite of artichoke and recognized a deeply savory tang of vinegar. I nibbled on a round of lemon and felt a crunch of clean, crisp citrus brightness. Finally, I put the two together and had one of those bites that food writers like to describe as "perfectly balanced," softness paired to crunch, richness balanced by clean finish. Or, as my date said, you could just call it goddamn delicious.
Why linger on a rather weird little vegetable plate for so long? Well, because the weird little vegetable plate represents a tectonic shift in American food over the past decade.
Kevin Rathbun earned his stripes in the era of big corporate kitchens. He scored big hits with flashy Buckhead spenders, first at Nava and then at Bluepointe in the 90s, a time when "Southwestern" could still be fine dining and "Asian fusion" wasn't a dirty word. His reign at Buckhead Life Restaurant Group defined that era of Atlanta dining.
When he started his own restaurant group almost 10 years ago, Rathbun pioneered a little corner of Inman Park and built a small empire devoted to what you might call "expense account dining." The whole point of showing up to Kevin Rathbun Steak is to get a dry-aged steak for two and a few fishbowl-sized martinis to ease the pain of the final tab. You can fool around with some of the other things on the Rathbun's menu, but the real ticket is a plate of bone marrow and anything from the section he calls "Second Mortgage Plates." Krog Bar, his tapas bar, is seemingly designed to be a good spot for Rathbun to puff cigars and quaff wine with a few lingering folks after dinner service has ended. The menus seem to never change.
Few people in Atlanta have made eating fat and salt and money more popular. Rathbun has a rabid following because a lot of people want recognizable, comforting, satisfying food when they drop some change on dinner. He knows the way to those pleasure points.
In that decade, though, new restaurants have largely turned away from giant dining rooms in favor of intimate settings. The big corporate restaurant palace has been upended by chefs who put mismatched flatware on tables in small rooms and plan their menus at the farmer's market in the morning.
Which brings us back to that plate of rich artichokes and bright lemons at KR SteakBar a few weeks ago. Perhaps that is chef de cuisine Chris McDade's spirit, or maybe it's a sign that Rathbun has been taking notes. Either way, Rathbun's status as the reigning king of big steaks in Atlanta comes into sharp relief at Steakbar, a nominally Italian restaurant where the menu is designed for people to order three, four, or five little plates for the table: a salumi course, a small plate or two, a pasta course, a hunk of smoky meat pulled from the wood-fired grill. You still can spend as much as you would at his other restaurants, but it'll come in smaller hits of $10 or $20 plates at a time. This is an Italian way of ordering, but it is also in tune with the contemporary shift toward smaller plates, and more of them.
Steakbar's "salumi" is actually quite Southern. While many new restaurants are curing something in-house right now, Steakbar defers that section of the menu almost entirely to meats cured elsewhere. Aside from a daily house pâté, a couple of choice country hams are sourced from Tennessee and Kentucky ,and the rest of the selection belongs to items made exclusively for the restaurant by the Spotted Trotter. The best of these is the 'nduja, a spreadable sausage that arrives in a split-open casing. There's a long Italian history of 'nduja, but you might recognize it as a cousin to the French-American andouille, with the melting texture of meat-butter.
You may be tempted to order link after link of that 'nduja, but Steakbar's real success is crafting a big, balanced menu that rewards exploring. Crisp romaine and tender mushrooms are paired with a smooth, addictive sauce of burned lettuce, like the flavor of a grilled romaine salad without the wilted leaves. Baby octopus is cooked tenderly and spiked with sweet chunks of candied lemon rind. Pastas are cooked with exacting reverence. I liked the butter and white wine simplicity of trenette and clams as a way to balance out the meats coming later. None of these plates, pasta included, strike me as traditional entrée size. Each dish is meant to be paired with something else.
Speaking of pairing, you could order glasses from the extensive, binder-like wine list that Rathbun maintains at all of his restaurants, but Steakbar also has a promising cocktail program that should please even the mustache-waxing tipplers. I had a "Looking for Answers," which pairs rye, Suze, and Punt e Mes for a bitter, boozy opener to the meal.
The steaks here are closer to six ounces, and kissed with the smoke of a wood-fired grill. The rib-eye is just the eye of that cut, something resembling the shape of a filet with the fattiness of rib-eye. Another night, I had a decadently fatty cut of porchetta (made with pork belly, rather than shoulder), whose herby flavors were a knockout. Plan your dishes with the rest of the table and you'll probably end up with a decadent mélange of flavors without feeling like you ate half of a cow.
The identity of Steakbar is much closer to our contemporary moment than the steak palaces of Rathbun's empire. So you might call the presence of a porterhouse-for-two an identity crisis. The first night I ate there, a steak for two was the special. Then I heard from people that they'd put it on the printed menu, perhaps to please Rathbun fans who complained about the little steaks. The most recent time I ate there, on a weeknight, I didn't see it on the menu or hear about it from our impeccably informative server. I assumed (wrongly) that he'd forgotten to mention it and asked if there were any other specials. He told me no.
"We actually just changed a lot of the menu today," he said. "Everything is pretty special."
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