Review: Local Three 

At Chris Hall and Co.'s new Northside eatery, the food abides

Sometimes, there's a restaurant, well, it's the restaurant for its time and place. It fits right in there. And that's Local Three. Local Three, in Atlanta. Sometimes there's a restaurant, sometimes, there's a restaurant. Well, I lost my train of thought here.

Ahem.

Through a driveway labyrinth, into a parking deck, up a few flights, into the elevator, down to the lobby, and through some office/condo hallways, there's an obscure wooden door marked "Local Three." It's a restaurant off a hallway that also houses the restrooms for the lobby of an office and condo building. Which means you're never going to find it if you aren't looking for it. In fact, you might not find it even if you are looking for it. It's a destination.

Through the door, before you even get to the dining room, you walk through another hallway that doubles as a shrine to the Dude from The Big Lebowski. The Dude as Jesus at the last supper. The Dude drinking a White Russian, painted on a velvet background. For chef Chris Hall and the other Local Three owners, it's obvious that, you know, the Dude abides.

If everything I've said so far makes no sense to you at all, well, not to fret. This is a restaurant with owners who love a movie so much, they're willing to confuse their clientele just a little. If nothing else, the theme gives Local Three humor and personality from the outset.

The highly designed dining room is tribute to a number of influences. Rough-hewn boards cover the walls, reminiscent not of a barn, but of a table you might find in Martha Stewart's house, made from wood salvaged from a barn's demolition. Various pig art pops up here and there, making clear the kitchen's favored protein, and huge canvas shades on the lights add to the country-chic atmosphere.

This ain't Joël. In fact, on my initial visit, I almost forgot the location's history as the most recent of Atlanta's true fine dining restaurants to close. But it was brunch, and Local Three's brunch custom is to invite diners into the kitchen to take their food directly from the cooks. It's an all-you-can-eat type of deal; a sort of buffet 2.0 where food is cooked to order and the bacon is never-ending. But the real star is the kitchen, that huge, sleek, gleaming silver kitchen that chef Joël Antunes is rumored to have spent upward of a million dollars on constructing. My guess is that the walk-through-the-kitchen brunch plan was hatched in part because the new owners didn't want to deny the public the chance to gawk at the restaurant's most magnificent aspect. And as you grab your grits and eggs and perfectly pan-seared trout, it feels a little sacrilegious to be strolling through the back-of-house that was imagined with the lofty ideals of an old-school chef — a place where only the most serious cooks in their starched white jackets would set foot, a place where no one would enter who wasn't ready with a "Yes, Chef!" on the tip of his tongue.

But this is how the times have changed. Dining, even expensive dining (and Local Three is no bargain basement) is casual enough that you invite the customers into the kitchen to pick up their own food. Local Three's owners are masters of casual. Todd Mussman and Ryan Turner were visionaries of a sort. When they retooled their Smyrna deli (Muss & Turner's) into a neighborhood bistro, they banked on low-key, high-quality dining long before it was an established trend. And chef and co-owner Hall is having a lot of fun with a menu that's the very opposite of stuffy and formal.

To wit: The charcuterie board is dubbed the Notorious P.I.G. and offers house-made Slim Jim, bologna and hot dogs. In fact, the hot dogs are the star of the plate, busting with juicy pop, smack and smoke.

It's an interesting idea — taking the lowbrow aesthetic currently in favor (burger anyone?) and translating it to the fine dining realm. But that's what Local Three is all about. Not only is there a version of the White Russian on the cocktail menu, it's a version made with non-dairy creamer.

Hall does get beyond his affection for philistine flavors, and reaches true elegance. The best dish in the house is an appetizer of lamb shoulder over spiced lentils, the lamb funky and tender, the lentils ramped up with a mess of ginger and garlic, enough to leave a pleasant burn at the end of each bite. The cooling comfort of yogurt brings the dish together.

The chef also has a way with vegetables: A pile of roasted cauliflower and golden raisins was compelling enough to have me practically ignore the huge diver scallops on the plate. A side of "crispy Brussels sprouts" wore their title well, the soft hearts of the vegetables encased in a halo of crackling, shattery leaves.

The one major failing I encountered was the lobster's alkaline flavor on an appetizer of gnocchi — the butter-poached claws tasted as though they'd been poached in aspirin instead. It's a shame, because on this particular menu even lobster over gnocchi counts as a lighter dish. It's clear Hall and his partners are unabashedly fat-friendly and meat-centric, so there's a heaviness that pervades. I loved the appetizer of fried sardines over apple and fennel slaw, the low-tide tang seeping down to create a kind of fishy dressing. But the dish didn't need the smattering of bacon lardons in the slaw, which left the freshness, snap and simplicity compromised. It'll be interesting to see what spring brings to this menu. My hope is for a lighter touch and some genuinely fresh-tasting dishes.

I worried when Local Three's location was first announced that Joël's former digs would do a disservice to this particular enterprise, tucked as it is out of sight off of Northside Parkway. Thus far, it doesn't seem to be a problem — the restaurant has been consistently packed. But this is a place to watch over the long term as a harbinger of good or bad news for the business as a whole. Can a pricey destination restaurant still survive? Is personality, sense of place, and a casual vibe enough to combat the larger economic trends? Does a lowbrow aesthetic translate to a charcuterie plate and a grand evening out?

I hope the crowds keep coming, because Local Three will be a key indicator of the health of our dining scene in Atlanta going forward.

Dude. Am I wrong?

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