Commune, an upscale newcomer on the city's Westside, feels like the same kind of compromise. The tabletops are red. The cross-shaped ceiling lights are red. The corporate logo is red. Almost everything else is black and gray, including staff uniforms. Hard surfaces glitter and gleam, amplifying words, footsteps and clinked glassware. Tilted mirrors allow everyone to spy on everybody else. You can almost imagine you've landed in either Communist-era Moscow or '90s New York. Nostalgia rocks.
Spun off a sizzling succession of Manhattan concepts (Matthew's, Mezze, Monzu, Commune, Canteen, Commissary, etc.), Commune Atlanta boasts an onyx-topped communal dining table that could seat a regiment of Red Chinese revolutionaries. The windowless dining room closely resembles a Greenwich Village or SoHo cellar -- though it's actually at ground level. The wine list seems longer than War and Peace. There are niggling little rules about actually buying the slosh, however. Three-hit flights of 3 ounces each are offered, for instance, but not single, three-ounce shots of the same stuff. (A full-glass serving can be split among three glasses, however.)
Published reviews and the mixed commentary of friends, while praising the restaurant's ambience, hot crowd and much of the food, repeatedly mentioned the relative simplicity of Executive Chef Jeffery Slade's cooking and presentation.
Slade's menu language, it's true, is stripped down and dry, as basic as an ironstone plate: "scallops in lemon broth, artichokes," "chicken and forest mushroom pot pie," "green salad with warm goat cheese."
Happily, the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef's recipes and methods range from 101-basic to bordering-on-classic, rather than merely plain to simple. In short, there's something for everybody -- from top-drawer foodies (top-rated Bacchanalia is next door) to rapper flakes and sub-teen dopers. Take the dishes just mentioned. The seared scallops -- three golf ball-size morsels of tender, delectable white meat -- are set off by wilted fresh spinach, tomato and carrot. You may sniff "simple" if you wish. We whispered "simply superb" ($22). Osso buco with thyme, white beans and pancetta was garnished with orange zest rather than the more traditional gremolada of lemon zest, minced parsley and garlic. You say simplification, I say smart, seasonal variation. The veal shank was tender and flavorful, the beans likewise. I took half home and lunched as well the next day ($22).
But Slade can be cruelly betrayed, whether by suppliers or kitchen staff I don't know. The house salad's principal distinction was an excess of stems. Otherwise clean greens and aromatic cheese couldn't quite drag a mixed heap of clippings up past rabbit-food level ($7). Ravioli stuffed with undersalted delicata winter squash and ricotta cheese was so delicate it almost didn't exist. Strips of orange peel provided the only readily recognizable flavor ($8).
There's flavor aplenty in the menu's most expensive starter, portabella mushroom Rossini with seared foie gras, truffle juice, small mixed salad and minced truffles ($14). Both the mushroom and liver were luscious, fresh and perfectly prepared. Truffles contributed aroma and tradition, the salad clean contrast to the surrounding richness. Fans of Seeger's and Houston's alike would lap up this luxury dish. For $2 more, the pot pie should provide comfort ample to man, woman and any child beyond milk teeth. More mushrooms than chicken, the huge entree combines sliced fungi and pulled meat with flaky, buttery crust and restrained cream sauce in a traditionally rich yet restrained style.
Serving hours at this play-toy commune are referred to as "working hours." Service by the cadre of youngsters is brisk and upbeat, but the servers appear to know more about recherche wines than the comparatively straightforward dishes they hope to sell. Listening to these working stiffs' wine spiels is time well spent, at least for those eager to indulge but unwilling to plow through the daunting, 100-plus-items-in-small-print wine list. A 6-ounce glass of Eyrie Vineyards 1999 Chardonnay from Oregon, as promised, was full and rich -- as it should be for $10.
When I go back, I want to try several dishes, ranging from the potentially sublime (roast duck with carrots and lime) to what sounds ridiculous and then some (red beet and watercress risotto). I'll skip "seared beef carpaccio," though. Whether in Moscow or New York, "seared" means cooked, "carpaccio" raw. For Slade, I hope this is a lapse, not a gaffe.
The commissars of Commune clearly hope to have it both ways -- raw and cooked, comforting and cutting edge, young stuff and old school. Luckily for us, it works more often than not.
Contact Elliott Mackle at email@example.com or 404-614-2514.
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