For once, the PR machine has underestimated its subject.
You know, we've heard it all before: "seasonally inspired cuisine with European influences," "soaring entrance," "stunning oversized bar," "sophisticated but casual elegance." These are a few of the catchphrases you can find on the home page belonging to Ecco, the Fifth Group's newest venture. PR-speak like that has become so omnipresent, it hardly means anything anymore. Spend a day looking at the websites for restaurants around Atlanta, and you might come to the conclusion that they are all essentially the same restaurant.
So it comes as almost a shock when a place with this kind of hype actually delivers distinctive food, a room that stands out, something different. Ecco, with its aesthetic of Old World flavors and simple quality, delivers far more than the catchphrases let on.
Chef Micah Willix comes to Atlanta from Fort Lauderdale's Seasons 52, part of a chain of upscale restaurants focusing on seasonal cuisine. Atlanta is set to get its own Seasons 52 at Perimeter Mall sometime this summer. Willix's menu at Ecco has some seasonality, but his strengths here come from a dedication to bold rustic flavors, and ingredient-driven simplicity. The restaurant's strengths follow suit.
Ecco's dining room is pleasing for a number of reasons. Housed in Midtown's Atlanta Fencing Club building, the designers have retained the great strip of old windows that lines one side of the long room. Tables with white tablecloths are interspersed with walnut tables that could seat a large extended family. Huge light fixtures look like flaming wheels. Neatly dressed cooks twirl in the gleaming open kitchen, and framed black and white photos at one end of the room give a nod to classic Italian restaurants of days past. Walk into many hip restaurants of the moment and the electricity may be deafening or gaudily overwhelming. Step into Ecco, and it's more like a comfortable but tingling buzz.
The bustling bar is a terrific place to sit and eavesdrop on the young and powerful trying to outdo each other with tales of trips to Vegas and foreign conquests. Order a vodka-spiked lemonade infused with lavender or a truffle vodka martini, and you might just be lulled into feeling that your fellow patrons are amusing rather than obnoxious.
But the bar is not the place to eat here. Leave the dandies and tartlets behind and head for the dining room, where service is friendly and gracious, if not always completely polished.
Spanish and Italian overtones dominate the menu, which is long and varied, with a large selection of meats and cheeses, and sections titled Taste & Share, Appetizers, Pizzas, Paninis, Pastas and Entrees. This level of variety is admirable, but the way to a fun and satisfying meal here is to stick with the top half of the menu. The meats and cheeses offer some worthy temptations, like a creamy gorgonzola dolce, or the spicy and smoky pork coppa. Follow up with a few selections from the Taste & Share category and the appetizers, which is where the real magic on this menu lives.
Piquillo peppers stuffed with braised short ribs are earthy and rich, dripping with a brawny juice that you'll want to slurp up from the dish. Striped bass escabeche is all puckery flavor, the meaty white flesh imbued with the essence of lime, vinegar and olive oil. Balls of goat cheese are fried in a light batter coating, drizzled with a little honey and given a generous grind of pepper, resulting in a dangerously delicious snack. The only dud I came across were the fried squash blossoms, which somehow wilted under their greasy coating rather than bloomed. Tuna crudo with chili and chive came out sparkling and fresh, but lacked pizzazz.
An appetizer of sweetbreads coated in almond flour and served atop a mound of lentils with sherry and rosemary is so spot-on with its savory, nutty flavor that it took me quite off guard. Roasted clams in a wine broth with spiced ham and spiked with ginger had every ingredient, right down to the parsley, working to sing the praises of the fresh ocean essence.
The rest of the menu has some worthy offerings. Thin-crust pizzas are straightforward and tasty. A panini of flank steak and fried lemons had me seduced by the idea of fried lemon on everything, but it was cumbersome and hard to eat, and I eventually just dumped the contents onto my plate and ate it with a fork. Entrees continue the theme of simple, well-chosen ingredients: A lamb loin is glazed with fig and served with a salad of fingerling potatoes, frisee and goat cheese; and a whole branzano is served over braised fennel and asparagus. Just a squeeze of lemon, and you could be sitting at an oceanside cafe in Italy. But for the price of these entrees, you could order four or five of the tastes and appetizers, which are just as inspired and a far better value.
I do not suggest you skip dessert, however, especially if you are fond of bakery items done simply and well. A berry crostata wraps plump, fresh berries in an old-fashioned pie crust and allows the ingredients to speak for themselves. The pine nut tart is sticky, nutty sweetness with a slightly sour buttermilk ice milk to cut through and sooth the sugar.
Italy and Spain are nicely represented on Ecco's wine list, which is a nice departure from the play-it-safe lists this town is so fond of. In fact, everything about Ecco is a nice departure. It's a departure from the trend of dumbing down the food, of underestimating the customer and of thinking that style matters over substance. Because hype isn't all it's cracked up to be, and has become so ubiquitous that it often fails to get at the very attributes worth hyping -- so much so that when the kitchen turns out food this praiseworthy, it comes as a surprise. Ecco is one of the more pleasant surprises I've had this year.
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Its strangely bright in there.