It's been a long time since I've seen the kind of folderol that has attended the opening of Piebar (2160 Monroe Drive, 404-815-1605), the latest undertaking of Bob Amick, owner of One Midtown Kitchen and Two Urban Licks. Amick, a partner in the old Peasant restaurant group, is giving the city some of its hippest new venues.
Piebar had been open to the public little more than a week when I visited, so consider this an extra-early first impression. The restaurant was absolutely swamped as soon as it opened, so I've taken the complaints I've heard about irregular service and food quality with a very large grain of salt.
Few, though, have complained about the decor. The restaurant is located in the 1962 modernist building designed by legendary Atlanta architect Henri Jova. Its original function was as a Trust Company of Georgia bank building. It was closed five years ago and the building, located on primo real estate near Monroe's entrance ramp to I-85, was imperiled with destruction by developers who had visions of fast-food restaurants dancing in their heads.
I seem to be the only person around who remembers that this was also the site of the old Minnie Quarts animated neon sign -- a magnificent, huge sign that featured a cow, Minnie, jumping over the moon. For local fame among signs, it surpassed even the Coca-Cola sign that overlooked the downtown connector.
Amick and partner Todd Rushing have preserved the building's integrity. The circular dining room features tables that line the wall, which is installed with a comfy banquette. All the tables are two tops (that can be moved together), thus not distracting from the room's giddy circularity. The roof seems to perch on floor-to-ceiling narrow windows. The city's biggest pizza oven is in the center of the dining room, surrounded by a stone bar. Colors are pale aqua, cream and silver. Light fixtures look like insect eyes on stalks. It's way groovy.
The owners have also created the coolest outdoor space in town. The flat, circular roofs that seemed to hover over the bank's drive-through windows like flying saucers have been converted to patios. The space is protected by a Cirque du Soleil-like awning.
How's the food? Mainly good, as long as the restaurant isn't completely overwhelmed by crowds. Richard Blais, chef at One Midtown Kitchen, designed the menu for Chefs Melissa Fedorko and Gerald Alexander. So, yes, true to Blais' form, a lot of the food is on the weird side.
The menu is divided into a selection of conventional mix-and-match antipasto ingredients, "micro plates" and pizzas. If you're not feeling adventurous, by all means order from the antipasto section where you can spend from $7 to $14. We ordered country pate, white anchovies, fresh mozzarella, sundried tomatoes and (rather strange) saffron cauliflower. Anything missing? Yes -- good bread.
The micro plates are pure Blais. They are available in four price categories from $4 to $12. My favorite -- also served at One now and then, as I recall -- was fresh figs over prosciutto with parmesan "foam," drizzled lightly with honey and scattered with almonds. I also like the take on rumaki -- chicken livers skewered on rosemary branches served with bacon and aged balsamic vinegar. Mussels steamed in mint pesto should only be served when the kitchen can find specimens larger than the niblets we were served. There are 33 micro plates available, so I have not begun to dent the menu. I might mention that friends all love the plate that features "linguine" made of squid.
The outré pizzas are compelling but make me yearn for more conventional variations. One I sampled combined duck confit with blue cheese and grapes. The combination sounded delicious to me but I ended up scraping off most of the duck confit, which had a heavy gamy taste. You know it had to be heavy to overwhelm blue cheese. Better was one topped with raw tuna, "wasabi caviar," ginger and soy jelly. I'm scared of the one made with escargot and wild mushrooms. It does seem that the unadventurous who pick more conventional pizzas -- like pepperoni with smoked mozzarella or sausage with San Marzano tomatoes -- are happier. Pies are available in quite filling halves as well as whole. They are cheap: $8 or $14.
Desserts, too, tend toward the outré. We tried three kinky gelatos -- rosemary pine nut cherry, olive oil black pepper and coffee cardamon. I liked all of them. However, as gelato goes, they don't seem to have quite the usual dense texture. I also tried a tiny "lollipop" of frozen Nutella. Gimme a dozen.
Service, by a staff of attractive young people in baby-blue T-shirts, was great, especially considering the huge crowds after only a few days open.
Piebar's owners and their landlord, Jeff Notrica, have done Atlanta a favor by preserving Henri Jova's building. We live in a city that is notorious for its disregard of good architecture. This is preservation at its creative best.
Here and there
Speaking of Bob Amick, he has announced that Trois, a French bistro, will open in April 2006. Expect a major design by international architects. ...
Yes, Tom Catherall, has already closed Peri Peri at Colony Square. The good news is that he's opened Ola in the same space. It features tapas and tacos designed by my favorite tapas chef, Nancy Delgado, who was earlier at Eclipse di Luna and Catherall's Twist at Phipps Plaza. ...
Thelma's, the city's best known spot for soul food that closed on Marietta Street not long ago, has reopened at 320 Auburn Ave. ...
Here's some hilarious required reading from the Onion for all dining critics and foodies: www.theonion.com/opinion/index.php?issue=4130. ...
La Tavola in Virginia-Highland has a new chef. He's Craig Richards, who was last at Lidia's in Pittsburgh. ...
Christopher Banks is chef of the new Cafe Dupri at 3133 Piedmont Ave. He's mainly cooking classic Southern cuisine. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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