Get thee downtown

Luxe's lonely locale belies its inviting charms

Silence. It surrounds us palpably as we walk up the street toward Luxe. It's the kind of deep, unnatural silence that emanates from downtown's nocturnal emptiness. The kind that makes you notice your foggy breath in the cold and feel grateful for the reassuring sound of your shoes clicking on the sidewalk.

As we near the restaurant, there is welcome evidence of activity. Speakers by the entrance pump out mellow thuds of remixed Sade and Maxwell -- sounds a friend eloquently defines as "urban hump music." An enormous picture window on the street frames the goings-on of the kitchen. We pause for a moment to watch the cooks dribble sauces on plates and pull pans from the oven. They look busy and warm. We rush through the door.

The location of Luxe, in the former Mumbo Jumbo space just off Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, can be a hard sell. Atlantans will gladly drive down dark roads to reach hidden eateries in redone industrial parks, but downtown is largely reserved for touristicos and folks on their way to a game or show.

Fortunately, the team behind this new venture has the cred to draw crowds. Oscar Morales knows a thing or two about tricky locales. His eponymous Oscar's in drowsy College Park has found success with a sophisticated, toned-down appeal and a chef who commands a personable talent for New American cuisine. Morales and his partners (Beau McGlamery, Mark Halik and Bharat Aluri) employ a similar strategy of careful details at Luxe.

The interior has been completely de-Mumbo Jumboed: What was once shadowy and baroque is now mindfully elegant. The walls of the vast bar area have been painted a deep sky blue. The ceiling is so high I expect to see stars twinkling and clouds rolling by like they do at the Fox up the street. You walk past a ridiculously long, gray marble bar to reach the cozier dining room in the back.

Chef Patti Roth, who spent time in the kitchens of Bacchanalia and Woodfire Grill, has taken her menu through frequent evolutions since the restaurant opened in September. I've found the cooking to be more confident and laudably idiosyncratic with each visit. Roth has an acute sense of composition. Potato croquettes stuffed with serrano ham and manchego cheese shatter upon contact with a fork and ooze gloriously. But it's the dusky romesco sauce underneath that pulls all the ingredients together and raises the dish above basic fried food appeal. Hanger steak gets all the adornment it needs from a couple pats of rich shallot butter and a side of nubbly, nicely browned root vegetables.

There's no mistaking the seasonal nature of the fare here. Braised turnip and apple soup with crispy bits of salty pancetta is exactly the kind of thing I want to ladle into my mouth to stave off winter's chills. And I want to follow that with the succulent grilled lemon chicken served with spoon bread. Yay for spoon bread. Why has the custardy, souffle-like cousin to polenta been all but forgotten in the annals of recent culinary history? I say a spoon bread revival is in order. Come try Roth's and see for yourself what you're missing.

There are several dishes on the menu that have too much sweet in the mix, throwing off the balance of flavors. Duck rillettes is a handsome block of pate wrapped in leek greens. But the pear butter dolloped on top turns out to be a sugary puree that doesn't quite mate with the meatiness of the rillettes. It needs to be more tart. Likewise, a gorgeous duck breast gets all the support it needs from sauteed pears and a silken parsnip flan. Why push it over the edge with caramelized walnuts? Sweep the nuts aside and savor the duck without them.

Happily, there's plenty that avoids the sweet trap. I'm particularly enamored with serrano-stuffed trout, a light, piscine take on veal saltimbocca paired deftly with a small Parmesan polenta cake and garlicky spinach. A boneless lamb shank stew has just a memory of cinnamon, giving it a subtle North African accent (though the tasteful drift of potato puree underneath is pure American).

And most desserts are the model of balance. Chevre cheesecake has just the right amount of goat cheese tang, and spiked cranberries provide a needed acidic pop. A chocolate tart could use more true chocolate depth, but tastes sensational nonetheless surrounded by a blob of toasted marshmallow, banana slices and dabs of dulce de leche. A just-added entry on the list is a frozen tangerine-vanilla parfait ringed with chamomile-macerated citrus fruits. The citrus could use more zing, but the parfait itself is intense -- a Dreamsicle that's reached the age of consent.

The service is lovably Gen-X, which is to say young (but not puerile), casual and charmingly self-effacing. I just hope they all have enough work to keep them around for the long run. Even on a Saturday night, you can see a group of them huddled at the end of the bar, gossiping and joking. I've never seen the dining room more than half-full, which is a shame. In four months, the cooking here is way more accomplished than lots of restaurants in Buckhead and Midtown that fill to capacity every night.

Go on -- give downtown another shot. Luxe is a gem among the Hooters' and Hard Rock Cafes. I bet you won't even mind the otherworldly stillness as you stroll back to your car after dinner.


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