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First Look: Saltyard 

Small plates get comfy in Buckhead

Saltyard owners Christian Favalli and wife Kristy Jones-Favalli are restaurant lifers. Kristy grew up working in restaurants in Macon and didn't stop once she tired of small-town life and moved to Atlanta. She waited tables, moved on to management, and eventually helped open Parish and Serpas True Food. Christian was born into an Atlanta restaurant legacy. His father, Sergio Favalli, opened La Grotta along with chef Antonio Abizanda in 1978. Since he was 6, Christian says, his dad always found something for him to do around the restaurant, everything from washing dishes to busing tables and parking cars. After college, he spent two and a half years cooking in various restaurants around Italy before returning to Atlanta. He worked for Concentrics Restaurants for two years and assumed the role of managing partner at La Grotta in 2008. Christian and Kristy met while working at Two Urban Licks, got hitched a few years later, and have now opened their own place.

At one time or another, most serious industry folks entertain the idea of opening their own restaurant. While Saltyard is the culmination of two lifetimes worth of food working and food loving, the concept is surprisingly simple. "We just wanted to serve good comfort food that people recognize at a good value," Favalli says. One month in, Saltyard could stand to loosen its belt a bit and take some creative risks.

On the fringes of South Buckhead, Saltyard is Watershed's new next-door neighbor a mile north of Midtown in the Brookwood on Peachtree Road. I'm told there are a few spots to park on the street, but it's a lot easier to valet and walk back out to the entrance on the building's south side. The space is tall, dark, and handsome. There are weathered wood beams overhead, steely gray walls, and heavy black pendant lamps hanging above the bar. The front door puts you face-to-face with the open kitchen and chef's table lined with watermelon-size jars of exotic salts, a nod to the restaurant's namesake. Further in, a smooth white slab of poured and polished concrete tops the 10-seat bar.

Executive chef/partner Nick Leahy's sprawling menu reads like a culinary greatest-hits list of more than 30 dishes. Bruschetta with honey-kissed grilled figs and mild, melty blue cheese reminded me of a delicious after-school snack. Paper-thin slices of golden beet carpaccio were laced with an unexpected kick of spicy curry and topped with a tousle of tart green apple and shaved fennel for another layer of earthy sweetness. Ridiculously tender grilled octopus came over brunoise fried potatoes. The pairing seemed bizarre at first, but with the octopus cooked so perfectly, the dish just worked.

The menu provides plenty of approachable options, but you get the feeling that the kitchen is a little fatigued, stretched beyond its limit. Gruyère gougères that should have been light and airy were more like dense and salty hushpuppies. A pot of chicken liver mousse was dry and forgettable. Roasted cauliflower with lemon, thyme, and chile carried only one lemony note of flavor. The same goes for the one-note shrimp pil-pil broth.

In addition to small plates, Saltyard offers four entrées. The duck confit fell off the bone in fatty, juicy hunks. Some bites were bracingly salty, but the accompanying beads of sweet beluga lentils kept the pangs of salt in check.

A thoughtful, mostly domestic wine list anchors Saltyard's beverage program. The Favallis are big proponents of wines produced stateside and took special care to fill the list with lesser-known European varietals like an Edna Valley Grüner Veltliner or Carneros Pinot Meunier, both from California. The beer list is stocked with reasonably priced, mostly local and regional craft brews. Specialty cocktails, even the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot made with Jameson, Meletti amaro, and Lillet Blanc, tend to be sweet and easy drinking.

Even with the hits and misses, it's hard to argue with the pricing. Small plates range from $4-$11, but most fall in the $6-$9 range. Tapas-style dining can add up quickly, but Saltyard's healthy portion sizes keep things affordable. Two people can expect to pay $50-$60 with a round of drinks and leave full. Still, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking going on at Saltyard. Dishes tend to come off as lackluster or a little boring. With all the restaurant chops Saltyard has to offer, perhaps it should rely less on a sprawling selection of classics and invest more time in thinking up offbeat pairings like curry and beets or octopus and home fries. As it stands, Saltyard is a nice, wallet-friendly addition to the neighborhood, but there's potential here to be much more.

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