A funny thing happened at the beginning of this season of "Top Chef." One of the contestants, a woman named Janine Falvo, claimed Atlanta as her home. And yet, the name didn't sound familiar to me, nor to many Atlantans.
It turns out Falvo arrived in Atlanta from California almost a year ago to take over operations of the restaurant located inside the Renaissance Hotel on West Peachtree Street. Formerly known as the Palomar, the hotel had recently been bought, and new management was looking to re-brand. The restaurant had up until that point been Pacci. Now it is Briza.
Falvo didn't last long on "Top Chef." In fact, she was dismissed from Padma-land on the first episode of the season. And with her reality TV career went the first and last mention of Briza I can remember.
In fact, I might never have considered Briza at all if it weren't for an odd piece of PR flotsam that came into the office a few weeks back. CL editor Eric Celeste received a martini glass with an invitation to come in and try one of the restaurant's new signature cocktails. It also invited him to tweet at the chef when he arrived, promising that she'd come out and introduce herself if he did.
Seeing as our new editor has been desperately seeking worthy Midtown hangouts, he decided to give Briza a try. He even tweeted at Falvo, although she never appeared as promised. But he did come back with tales of dishes that piqued my interest. "There's a salmon dish with spaetzle, salmon mousse, and lemon pudding on the menu," he reported. "We didn't order it." Who would? Me, that's who. The more disgusting something sounds, the more hope I have that a chef has turned that something on its head, made sense out of nonsense. Off to Briza I went.
The decor is much the same as it was at Pacci, which is to say stunning in an over-the-top kind of way. In my March 2010 review of Pacci, I wrote, "Dramatic orb lights encircled in fringe hang like jellyfish tentacles over the tables. Chairs and booths have regal but quirky design — winter white and plush red upholstery, oversized with curlicue touches — lending a kind of Mad Hatter appeal." All of this is the same, as is the comfy, loungy bar area. And all of it is eerily empty, even at 7:30 on a Friday night.
Why? Has reality television taught us nothing? Shouldn't we be packing it into a restaurant smack in the center of our fair town, with a chef who had .5 seconds of fame, where T.I. and Tiny had a TV dinner? Why isn't anyone at Briza?
Perhaps it's because the "Sazerac" is so stinky with the liquorish sting of Pernod, it's barely sniffable, let alone drinkable. Or perhaps it's because the "signature" cocktail is like a root beer float with Fernet Branca dumped in. Or, wait! No. It might be the chicken powder.
Yes, chicken powder. There are gimmicks galore at Briza, a sense of fun to the food that would be inspiring if any of it actually tasted good. PR material is full of the same vague references to "modern cuisine that seamlessly blends Atlanta locally sourced food with Southern influence." I'm not sure what that means, or what Falvo is going for, but the result is downright baffling.
The chicken powder, which tastes exactly like powdered McNuggets, comes as garnish to the "buffalo" chicken, which is comprised of three cubes of grim, greasy fried chicken meat. On the side, atop the chicken powder, is a wobbly disk of blue cheese in gelatin form. "When you break open the blue cheese disk, it turns to liquid!" the waiter exclaimed. Small vials of hot sauce are provided, presumably to squirt over the chicken cubes, but the portions are so small as to render them worthless.
A beet salad, accompanied by goat cheese "panna cotta," was a plate of beets that, as my friend said, "Might turn children off of vegetables forever." They tasted like they had been cooked last week and refrigerated next to an uncovered vat of liquid aspirin. The goat cheese thing — it certainly was not panna cotta — had the consistency of half-dried caulk. It was like part eraser, park chalk, part Bazooka gum. But goat cheese flavored.
Lobster in "buttered popcorn" sauce was perhaps the rubberiest, chewiest, saddest excuse for a crustacean I've ever put in my mouth. And that salmon dish? The chive spaetzle was dark green and had the appearance, consistency, and approximate flavor of offcast Play-Doh squiggles. The salmon, overcooked and farm-raised, oozed with salmon fat flavor ramped up by an odd glob of slightly stiff salmon mousse. As far as I could tell there was no lemon pudding, just a piece of salmon cured in lemon, almost so it would taste like candy. I'm not even sure it was salmon, actually. It tasted like lemon Pledge.
There were other, less unpleasant options. The brown butter broccoli risotto under a perfectly boring chicken breast was uncommonly stingy with its teeny flecks of broccoli, a little too reminiscent of box-risotto from the supermarket, but not particularly offensive. An odd appetizer called "pork and oysters entwined" was too sweet and missed an opportunity for an interesting crisp/soft play on textures. Instead, the thin slab of pork belly beneath the oysters was squishy, making for a soft-on-soft mouthfeel. Snaps of bright watermelon radish were the best thing on the plate. Crispy Brussels sprouts under a big, tasteless pork chop were a tad oily but had good bitter-green flavor. The sweet potato-onion dumplings on top, however, tasted like hot pumpkin pie juice squirting out of tough, greasy wrappers.
Briza is a head-scratcher. It's hard to believe that anyone would have tested this menu and decided it tasted good, no matter how hoodwinked they were by the promise of chicken dust and lemon pudding. I never saw Falvo in the partially open kitchen. One thing's for sure, dishes like these are too high concept to be left in the hands of bored cooks who don't care.
It's a pity. This is a beautiful space, and Pacci was a decent restaurant. Briza's service is friendly and eager, and everyone wants to be awed by the powders, the puddings, and the panna cottas. But the most important ingredients — care, focus, and quality — are most certainly missing.
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