Hit the ground floor running 

Despite sometimes strange service, Lobby at Twelve delivers the goods

Our wavy-haired server stands listening while we finalize our friendly debate over which bottle of wine to order. Then, with apologetic resolution, she asks to see our IDs.

My thirtysomething pals and I all blink at each other in bewilderment. She's carding us?

As we dubiously reach for our wallets and purses, she explains herself in a cadence resembling Band Camp Girl from the American Pie movies:

"This guy? Came in to talk to us? And, like, really scared me. He said if we got caught serving alcohol to minors, it would be on our heads and we would get in a whole lot of trouble. So, unless you look, like, totally ancient, I'm asking for ID."

This is my first visit to Lobby -- the restaurant at Twelve, Atlantic Station's soon-to-open hotel/residence -- and I'm struggling to interpret the mixed signals. The rectangular design of Bob Amick's latest baby is very New York in a self-contained way, and a welcome deviation from the frenetic pubescence of One Midtown Kitchen, Two Urban Licks and Piebar. The two moody, monochromatic dining rooms have an attractive anonymity -- it's the kind of place you could conduct a verboten affair or treat a friend to a birthday meal in equal measure. And the neo-soul soundtrack -- Jill Scott, Remy Shand, India Arie -- fills the place with an appropriately adult groove.

But I'm wondering if every server is as out to lunch as the one we're stuck with. When she returns with the wine more than 10 minutes later, she's apparently decided we're wizened enough for her to confide in.

"I'm totally going back to school to get myself a real J-O-B. Not that this isn't great, but I'm, like, really into makeup and hair. Yeah. Good times. How does the Viognier taste? Oh my God? Wine? There's so much to try!"

Um, sure. The wine list is full of familiar labels heavily marked up and lacking information about the vintage year. The $24 Santa Julia Viognier we chose in an effort to uncover a bargain turns out to be a dullard. It bursts out lemony but almost immediately fizzles to expressionless neutrality.

Bizarro waitron, and a misstep in the vino. Sigh. But just when I'm beginning to think this dinner's a washout, something unexpectedly wonderful happens: The food starts to arrive.

A shallow dish of braised lamb is served with crème fraiche and a tidy pile of grilled bread. Smooth a little onion-flecked crème over the bread, drape some minty lamb atop and taste as the flavors simultaneously collude and erupt. Georgia white shrimp are gently sauteed in a light tomato sauce with capers and caraway seeds, a novel way to highlight the shrimp's sweetness.

The wood-fired oven, which anchors the dramatic circular bar at the restaurant's entrance, imparts our sausage meatball pizza with crackly edges. Goat cheese mellows the assertive meatballs, and basil brightens the heavier ingredients.

Nick Oltarsh is the executive chef in charge of these forward-thinking combinations. It may surprise some avid diners to learn that Oltarsh hails from Murphy's in Virginia-Highland (another restaurant managed by Amick's company, Concentrics Hospitality Solutions). His neighborhood-oriented cooking there yielded very different results than his sophisticated turns at Lobby. But Oltarsh came to Atlanta via New York's Gramercy Tavern, which rests its considerable reputation on an unpretentious honesty even while pushing the culinary envelope. It is evident that Oltarsh absorbed some useful lessons in Gramercy's kitchens.

Happily, at subsequent meals, the servers are far less flaky and I eventually discover some engaging wines. Throughout, the strength of the food remains largely consistent. The kitchen shows particular finesse with fish. Georgia trout finds an unlikely intimate in ham, which is sliced in strips and strewn over the fish. A buttery vermouth-ham reduction punctuates the porcine presence without overpowering the trout, and braised cabbage provides a needed simplicity.

Similarly, almond brown butter imparts an old-school, '70s French restaurant richness to whole grilled daurade. But steamed wild striped bass with brothy saffron-braised vegetables teeters between subtle and bland. The ever-alluring perfume of saffron makes me lean toward labeling it subtle, but know that this is a dish for those who prefer their food mild.

Main courses are accompanied by four vegetables placed family-style on a lazy Susan in the center of the table. I only wish these were given a more thoughtful level of attention. For every sultry cauliflower gratin that's included in the mix, a blob of bland garlic potatoes, undercooked "Tuscan" beans and bitter slices of grilled zucchini spoil the playful idea.

And though it's refreshingly easy to choose one enjoyable dish after another, the menu includes a few opening menu foibles (the restaurant launched early in December). Some are readily fixable, like the Bibb lettuce and avocado salad that arrives screaming for help as it drowns in green goddess dressing. A judicious touch would make all the difference.

Other offerings could be tossed altogether. The "Cru 3 Ways" is being marketed as a signature dish, though it is neither true raw seafood crudo (it includes thoroughly cooked crab meat) nor is it cannily prepared (the hamachi tuna is underseasoned while the salmon-like arctic char is viciously saline).

But even if you should stumble upon a less-than-satisfying app or entree, all will be forgiven come dessert time. Last year, Jonathan St. Hilaire parted ways with Michael Tuohy at Woodfire Grill and was hired by Amick as his corporate pastry chef. I have historically been less than thrilled with the desserts at Amick's restaurants, but that's all changed at Lobby.

St. Hilaire's compositions border on poetic. His butterscotch pot de crème carries a deep, smoky caramel nuance, tempered by soft shortbread cookies that have an extra dash of salt to even out the pudding's extreme sweetness. The warm mascarpone cheesecake with lemon cream and blueberry compote is a bookend to Kathryn King's warm chocolate cheesecake at Aria. I'd like the chocolate cinnamon fondue to be tad thicker, but there's no denying the childlike joy of splitting a brioche sugar doughnut apart and dunking it in the cream-laced, bittersweet liquid.

Yes to these desserts, and yes to the new direction in Amick's restaurants. I hope this portends great promise for his forthcoming Trois. How encouraging to have a spot in Atlanta that feels hip yet tailored to grown folks. Even if you have to flash ID to prove you are one.


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