When I first became a restaurant critic, someone asked me, “What’s more important? Great technique or great ingredients?” My answer was, of course, that the best food results as a combination of the two. Crappy ingredients in the hands of a fantastic chef can still become something enjoyable to eat. And the best ingredients in the wrong hands can easily go to waste.
David Larkworthy, chef at the three locations of 5 Seasons Brewing, has long been an advocate for great ingredients. Back when locavorism was still a term and movement unused by anyone but the most rarified foodie, Larkworthy was quietly buying up huge amounts of local veggies for 5 Seasons' original location in Sandy Springs. In our 2006 Food Issue, I wrote, “By volume, David Larkworthy uses more locally grown produce than any other chef in Atlanta.” This is likely still the case, with 5 Seasons expanding to include an Alpharetta location in late 2006, and in the spring of this year, the first intown location opened on the Westside.
After only positive experiences at both the Sandy Springs and Alpharetta locations, I was as excited as every other beer- and food-obsessed Atlantan to have a 5 Seasons inside the Perimeter. But the initial reports were worrisome. People complained that the main room was deafeningly loud, and even more troubling, that the food was disappointing. I ate there once fairly early on, and had a meal with mixed success. Perhaps time, I thought, would help work out the kinks in this new location.
In the past weeks I’ve been back over and over, and have encountered some wildly uneven cooking. The large room overlooking the intersection of Marietta Street and Howell Mill Road does have strange acoustics, and the service ranges from friendly to spacy to downright absent. (In an empty restaurant, taking five to 10 minutes to get a beer or water or a check or change ... .) But those flaws are easily forgivable when great food is on the table. Unfortunately, great food is hard to come by at this 5 Seasons location. Because even with the best ingredients in the world, care must be taken to preserve those ingredients’ inherent value.
What could be more evocative of this struggle than the vegetable plate, the ultimate chance to allow ingredients to shine, or to squander their natural potential? 5 Seasons’ vegetable plate caused my dining companion, a beleaguered vegetarian, to cry, “I am horrified at what restaurants perpetuate on this city’s vegetables!” Undersalted, undercooked squash, oversalted asparagus, to the point of inedibility — the best thing on the plate by far a few slices of unadorned tomato.
I happily gobbled down a special of local eggplant, breaded, fried and topped with cheese and marinara. But it was a waste of beautiful eggplant, which I couldn’t taste under all the run-of-the-mill toppings.
Rabbit chilaquiles — I can’t think of another two words that make me as happy — is a mushy mess, the rabbit cooked to a kind of stewed, gamy slop and mingled with soggy tortilla chips. God forbid this is the meal that inspires anyone to try rabbit for the first time. I doubt they’d return to it anytime soon.
I encountered a few dishes with spicing and conception that was spot on, but which suffered from poor execution. A special pork loin, served with a goat cheese-stuffed squash blossom, was cooked properly but obviously not allowed to rest before being cut and served. The meat turned out tough on the outside and kind of cold and pink in the middle. Temperature has been an issue with every meal I’ve had here — the otherwise unflawed sweetbread SBBLT appetizer, a play on the BLT, had sweetbreads sitting atop smoky bacon hunks and a smattering of diced tomatoes. Delicious. But the dish arrived cold, highlighting the fat and oil of the bacon and crust on the sweetbreads rather than the combination's meat and spunk.
In fact, most of the issues here are ones that could easily be fixed with a little old-fashioned quality control. Larkworthy either needs to spend some serious time in the Westside kitchen, or he needs to make the (massive) menu smaller so the cooks can focus on quality. I can taste the struggle to make this food work in every plate — from the success of the simpler items, such as truly decent pizzas and burgers, to the failures of some of the more ostentations dishes. Why put caviar on an oyster po'boy? To make it fishier? Why call hot sauce on fried quail “buffalo foam”? It's clearly better when it’s just hot sauce. I’ve had food here I'd like to believe Larkworthy in person would never allow out the kitchen doors.
Even the beer, 5 Seasons’ hallmark, seems to have taken a step toward safety at the Westside location. I’ve had some intriguing and delicious special cask beers over the past few months, but those are often unavailable. Brewmaster Crawford Moran is playing with some cool ideas, including brewing with organic Georgia watermelons. (There’s also one brewed with peaches.) The resulting watermelon beer was lovely: fresh and tart, without any cloying sweetness or sugary undertones. But most beers recently have lacked depth or any challenging characteristics. I don’t mind an easy-drinker every once in a while, but many of Moran’s beers in this location, from the Golden Number ale to the Mr. Breakfast oatmeal porter to the Dark White ale, lack much heft, finish or personality. All the beers are incredibly well-balanced and easy to drink, but at Atlanta’s premier brewpub, I’d like to see at least one or two beers with more potential to challenge and excite the drinker.
As a concept and a company, I adore 5 Seasons. For purely selfish reasons, I want the Westside location to match the quality and comfort of the OTP branches. Expansion can happen too quickly and can be difficult to manage. But for the sake of those ingredients, and for the customers who are paying for them, 5 Seasons Westside needs a shot of love and attention from its owners and chef.
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