It's 8 on a Tuesday evening, and the lights in the gleaming lobby of Table 1280 have already been turned down. There's one table still lingering over dessert in the dining room, but soon they'll be gone, and the place will be dark and empty. The restaurant, in the physical and cultural center of Atlanta, seems to have lost its hold on the city's attention.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Table 1280 is never busy. In fact, on evenings when there's a show at the adjacent Alliance Theatre, the pre-theater rush can be mad. In order to combat the frantic atmosphere the rush creates, the restaurant has implemented a few measures, including a prix fixe menu on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights before 7:30. Even the food on the regular menu seems tailored to quick, uncomplicated preparation, and most plates consist of a few simple components placed together pleasingly.
But the lack of customers any time other than when Woodruff Arts Center patrons use the restaurant as a matter of convenience suggests a greater problem for Table 1280. Museums and theaters are built on a grand scale meant to last many years, often decades or centuries, even when the driving principle is modernism. Restaurants, and especially trendy modern restaurants, very rarely hold their shine for more than a few years. How does a restaurant built to complement a modern arts center maintain independent longevity?
When Table 1280 opened in 2005 with chef Shaun Doty at the helm, the hype was so frenzied it's doubtful anyone was asking that question. After Doty left last year to open Shaun's in Inman Park, his friend Todd Immel took over. Immel worked under Guenter Seeger at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, and had also worked at Doty's Mumbo Jumbo. Later he served as chef at Oscar's in College Park. His food at Table 1280 was well-received, but there's no doubt some of Table 1280's hype left when Doty did.
The restaurant's space still feels dynamic, with brilliant white walls flanked by the glass façade that faces the lawn and piazza. Art installations, such as the wall of pastel-striped fluorescent lights in the main dining room, make for a modern, elegant atmosphere that feels vibrant when it's full of diners, and only slightly austere when it's empty.
The simplicity of Immel's menu fits perfectly with the surroundings; cod is paired with purple cabbage and bright orange semicircles of delicata squash, and perfectly ripe figs are piled up over a plate of excellent prosciutto. Immel sources high-quality ingredients and lets the pure flavors work their magic. It's not a particularly inventive menu, but the approach works.
A flawless, evenly pink chicken-liver paté speaks volumes of the technical capabilities in the kitchen. And a cute pairing of identically shaped green grapes and red grape tomatoes with the well-crisped skate wing works texturally and flavorfully as well as visually.
But the unevenness of the restaurant's function – the no-man's-land between a real restaurant and an amenity to the Arts Center – shows up in ways that are hard to tolerate in the world of fine dining. There's an institutional feel to the place that's inescapable – even the menu sometimes feels as though this is the most refined institutional food ever invented, like the meals they'd serve at a modern retirement home for millionaires. I'm sure that is just the function of planning a menu that can be done at very high volumes, and it hardly bothers me. What's more troublesome are service issues and kitchen slipups that feel amateurish rather than slick.
Wine was an issue every time I ordered. On one visit, the waiter brought three bottles to the table before he found the one I requested. On another visit, the first bottle of white I ordered was not available, and the second was in stock but not cold. On both occasions it was 20 minutes between ordering and delivery. With a relatively short list, wine knowledge and supply shouldn't be this much of an issue.
And while one evening the cod was cooked absolutely perfectly, another evening it was barely cooked at all. Cod is not a fish one wants to eat medium-rare. Despite the fact that the dish was hardly touched, no one on the service staff noticed or asked if there was a problem. Waiters here go through all the motions of fine dining, but skim the surface of true service, never dipping into the crucial details that can make or break a meal.
Desserts lurch wildly from pitch-perfect to confounding. The apple beignet is actually an entire apple surrounded by a sugary donut crust and is both a cool trick and a delicious one. But a brown butter cheesecake is pasty, not sweet or creamy enough, and a little reminiscent of a broken butter sauce. Cool idea, but did anyone taste it?
The food, the space, the service – somehow it all fails to add up to something that feels like a whole.
It all comes down to functionality. Table 1280 is still struggling to navigate a number of different needs. The theater crowd is the restaurant's bread and butter, but catering mainly to that – to getting food out quickly and without incident – takes away from the more subtle pleasures of true fine dining.
Todd Immel's menu is lovely in its simplicity, and the space speaks of a restaurant that should be at the center of the city's attention. Whether Table 1280 as a whole can reclaim that attention is another matter entirely.
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