Waltz into the restaurant in the early evening and you instantly know this is the destination du jour. There's nary a seat at the natty glass bar. Cooks in the open, centrally located kitchen only glance up from their tasks when they collectively sense a gorgeous woman walking by. The two austerely modern dining rooms pulsate with customers who look unusually dapper and well-read. The whole place emanates a kind of next-level sophistication for Atlanta.
But show up at curtain time? You might feel a bit lonesome in the same stark white rooms. And you can't exactly nuzzle up to the unapproachable art installations for warming company, either.
Such is but one of the intriguing paradigms of this restaurant, part of the $164 million expansion of the Woodruff Arts Center. Its unique positioning gives it a built-in clientele of symphony- and theater-goers, but also sets up a series of challenges that the restaurant must surmount to become a citywide dining destination.
Parking constitutes a small annoyance, though one worth noting in our car-consumed metropolis. I snuck into a makeshift valet service on a Friday when the High Museum was hosting a black-tie expansion celebration. Valet had set up along Peachtree and snarled traffic for several blocks. I can't imagine it will be an ongoing arrangement. Neither does the restaurant offer validation for the pricey parking garage within the Woodruff.
But the most formidable hurdle faced by Table 1280 is the daunting demands placed upon its executive chef, Shaun Doty. The restaurant is managed by New York-based Restaurant Associates, who hired Doty away from his 2-year-old MidCity Cuisine just up the street. Doty not only oversees the 240-seat restaurant (including outdoor tables and the bar) but also directs the gargantuan catering operation that churns out hors d'oeuvres and multicourse meals for events. Welcome to the big business side of food, chef.
Actually, given the intense schedule of happenings around the museum's reopening, the cooking at Table 1280 is remarkably assured. Doty has coerced his signature synergy of Mediterranean and New American flavors into a broadly appealing menu. The breadth of choices includes recognizable offerings to satiate unadventurous palates, yet he also slips in a couple of visionary plates to tantalize the foodies.
Escargot falls into the edgier category. The meaty little critters take on an almost beefy character served over wispy mashed potatoes. A soft poached egg is nestled in the bowl. Its yolk lazily oozes, enrobing and enriching the snails and potatoes.
Barramundi, a giant Australian perch, gets a Grecian makeover: The fish is spiked with lemon and oregano, adorned with several chickpea fries and given a subtle side sauce of thick Greek yogurt topped with pressed mullet bottarga (roe). What a comforting assemblage of sunny, companionable ingredients.
For less venturesome sorts, the jumbo lump crab cake is downright definitive: plump, lumpy and fresh. A plumage of salad alongside includes whole basil leaves that heighten the sweetness of the crab on alternating bites. I also like the gentle smoky flavor of the salmon entree, though the peas and sweet corn that encircle the fish bewilder me. Shouldn't they have disappeared by November?
Keep an eye out for the frequently changing "a la plancha" (grilled) seafood items on the menu, and an ear out for the verbally communicated specials. Grilled swordfish with an herbaceous salsa verde has forever vanquished scarring memories of swordfish miscooked to aquatic shoe leather. These thin filets are rosy and tender, arranged over a bed of Tuscan kale. Now that's an appropriately seasonal accompaniment.
And, hello! My chums and I are still kvelling over a beef tenderloin special. Two hunky, melting tornadoes with potato mousseline and a tawny hillock of chanterelle mushrooms sauteed in marsala. Iconic. Every element correct. Stick this one on the permanent menu, folks.
And cut out a couple of others in the process. Beware the pork chop with a pedigree whose description reads like an enticing Thanksgiving prelude. The chop is disturbingly tough, the cranberry chutney puckers the mouth, and the acorn squash puree needs seasoning -- it tastes like how a jack-o'-lantern smells after you've carved it.
The $18 foie gras appetizer is a mess on the night I have it. The foie runs mushy and oily, and the orange-cumin sauce is equally sebaceous. At least three small crepe roll-ups stuffed with figs exhibit some care.
If the savory menu as a whole has some roller coaster qualities to it, the same cannot be said for the dessert menu. Pastry chef Edouard Fenouil worked with Doty at MidCity Cuisine, and the exacting yet joyful sweets he exhibited there are only magnified at Table 1280.
Champagne-geranium sorbet haunts me as one of the most captivating creations I've tasted this year. Not cloyingly floral or blatantly winy, just bright and unusual and gently herbal. It's one of the flavors in a revolving ice cream and sorbet selection that may also include summery huckleberry sorbet and wonderfully subtle pistachio ice cream. Caramel crème fraiche ice cream, another beauty, coddles a lovely apple galette with thin, crispy edges.
A couple of MidCity standards made the transition to the fancier digs. Sugary doughnuts find their true mate in espresso dipping sauce (the other two sauces are superfluous). And chocolate-hazelnut gianduja is just a gussied-up name for MidCity's luscious homemade Kit Kat bar.
Our server, Christine, tips us off to that fact on my first experience in the main dining room. She shepherds us through our dinner with immaculate timing and grace. Our meal feels neither rushed nor overly leisurely in her hands.
My second dinner in the main room? Not so hot, service-wise. Our goateed server disappears for long stretches, forgets a cup of coffee, deserts us at check time. Other servers jump in when they see us neglected, but they let their frustration with the disappearing guy show through.
The servers in the bar, on the other hand, scurry you through your food. But that's designed to be a good thing. Around 7:30 p.m., the bar -- an oddly sterile room -- fills with frantic would-be diners gnashing for a nibble before the show at the Alliance starts. And whoa, can the kitchen and staff deliver.
I sit down for a glass of wine and three tapas at 7:25 p.m. My food arrives less than 10 minutes after I order it. From my sole encounter, the tapas offerings seem like finicky, overly arty fillips: a piece of bread arranged with slices of pork and poached cherry tomatoes; a tiny, sculpted round of baked goat cheese. Only a lush jumble of grilled octopus with fennel and tiny dark spheres that turned out to be black chickpeas makes an impression.
Nonetheless, when I ask for my bill, it materializes in seconds. I'm walking out the door at 7:52 p.m.
I venture back to Table 1280 for one more meal: Sunday brunch. I find it oddly telling.
The brunch is structured in the classic fashion of hotel buffets: a steep fixed price and a plethora of pastries, warm dishes, salads and desserts to gorge on.
A section of the menu is labeled "From the Chef's Table," breakfasty numbers included in the price but that need to be ordered from your server. We ask for the corned beef red flannel hash with concentrated nubs of roasted vegetables and a bowl of stone-ground cheddar grits from that list.
They are the only two things with any soul at this brunch. The rest -- undersalted wheat berry and wild rice salad, fish drowned in mustard sauce, ricotta and lemon ravioli in innocuous tomato sauce, glasses filled with dull chocolate mousse and weepy panna cotta -- meld into one bland pile on overloaded plates. Hey, we have to munch down our money's worth, right?
Doty can only do so much, I know. Yet Table 1280's brunch illuminates the megacorp behemoth behind this outfit. Doty would never have served a spread like that at MidCity or its predecessor, Mumbo Jumbo. But that's his challenge: keeping the corporate out of his cooking. As the High settles into its opening, I trust Doty will infuse more independent spirit into every aspect of his considerable commitment.
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