Review: Latitude 

Buckhead gets a global option at Phipps Plaza

Shopping and dining. It was never a concept that held much appeal to me, and yet it's a revered tradition, particularly among ladies of leisure. A day at the mall, browsing and buying, punctuated by a light lunch — perhaps at an elegant café nestled in the upper floors of a department store. Or perhaps sitting at a nasty table in the food court, eating sticky-sweet "Chinese" food off of plastic trays. Yes, the mall food court has gone a long way toward denigrating the tradition of shopping and dining, but if it makes sense to uphold the elegance factor at any mall, it might as well be at Phipps Plaza.

It's possible that the shoppers at this luxury mall might take a break from browsing the racks at Versace or Armani, turn to one another and say, "You know? I could really go for Chick-fil-A." But they won't find that here, or any other food court regular, although there is a Subway. What they will find is the Café Bistro at Nordstrom, an upscale Italian steakhouse, and now, Latitude.

Latitude, in the space that was formerly the Grape, is a collaboration between chef Micah Willix and partners Kenny Perlman and Emily Streib Marcil. The restaurant feels upscale and unsurprising, its walls intermittently tiled in ocean colors, its bar large and curved, its back wall lined with wine. It's small enough to feel intimate, dark enough to feel classy, and familiar enough to feel bland.

Willix made his mark on Atlanta during a five-year stint as chef at Fifth Group's Ecco in Midtown. Ecco's broad menu focuses on Mediterranean flavors, and while there Willix proved himself to be an exacting, daring, and talented chef.

Here, he is going for a more "global" approach. As a result, the menu at dinner reads as a highly edited (seven appetizers, five entrées) study in New American favorites. Are there touches of Italy, France, and Spain here and there? Yes. Is that the basic premise behind most New American food? Also yes.

The entrées literally follow the predictable pork, steak, chicken, fish, burger road map. It feels too safe for Willix, who at Ecco dabbled in all the extremes of Spain and beyond, from spicy to fishy to the glorious stink of bold cheeses and fat-slicked charcuterie.

At Latitude, no such boldness exists, although there are places where Willix's talent shines. You can see the Ecco influence in a house-made lamb sausage over lentils, the pop and meat and tang all in perfect working order. The beef tartare is a tad overspiced for me but delicious even so, the deep flavor shining through the garlic and capers and various other adornments. A generous appetizer portion of scallops sits over oyster mushrooms, crispy at their edges and bright with lemon. It's one of those dishes that highlights technique and balance above all else, and makes you feel as though you're in the hands of a true professional.

Which is why some of the less appealing dishes are so confusing. A few things are just boring: The pork chop entrée, served with large, underwhelming Brussels sprouts and some sweet apple stuff on the side, could be served at any decent restaurant anywhere in the country. Except for the fact that mine was incredibly unevenly cooked, with one side done through and the other underdone, the dish made no impression whatsoever. I was baffled by the mahi mahi entrée — the fish was springy, bordering on tough, the quinoa underneath tasting of blood orange and creamy ... what? Mayo? Whatever it was, it gave the whole dish a dairy funk that did not play nicely with the grain and citrus.

I found the breading on the eggplant appetizer heavy, the tomato conserva too sweet, and both of those too heavy to be rescued by the slick of house-made ricotta that sat atop. A pumpkin pot de crème at dessert wasn't a pot of cream at all but rather a pile of slightly mealy pumpkin moosh. With a menu this short and a chef this talented, I'm surprised by the percentage of duds on the plate.

Latitude works better at lunch, when soups are bright and hearty and skillfully made, and chicken salad sandwiches and shrimp salad with avocado hearken to a style of dining upscale mall shoppers are familiar with. I like the lamb burger, especially served with the smoky warm potatoes with sour cream. The roasted beet salad with fresh mache is exactly the kind of dainty American food that made lunching with ladies so enjoyable in the first place.

But I want more. I'd like to see a "globally inspired" wine selection that goes beyond the mostly American list that has a couple of French and Italian bottles but it rarely surprises. I'd like to see more chutzpah from Willix. I think he's capable of more daring, more flavor, more range than pork and chicken and sandwiches. This restaurant is too safe, too timid in its global influence, too geared toward a timid clientele. Perhaps it's too beholden to its location?

When considering this chef and this town, Latitude should be better. When considering dining at the mall, it's a nice option.

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