"Our take on boil-in-bag rice," announces a pony-tailed woman with a twinkle in her eye. "It's paella with shrimp and chorizo." She and the other server empty the contents of the plastic bags into the bowls and dash off.
We chuckle at the culinary clowning that has now become the trademark of chef Richard Blais and his eponymous Buckhead restaurant, which opened in December. My grin grows even wider, though, when I take my first bite. The paella is soupier than most, really more like risotto, but the heady, esoteric perfume of saffron sensually detonates in my mouth. The shrimp's sweet saltiness and the chorizo's spicy edge punctuate the saffron's rich clarity. This little bowl of rice packs an unexpected wallop. But then, it's been an evening of surprises. And we're only on our 13th (or maybe 14th, I've lost count) of the 31 courses we'll be experiencing during our three-and-a-half-hour marathon meal.
Gulp. Thirty-one courses?
It's not as taxing as you may imagine. Blais' mega multi-courser, available only on Monday nights, is mainly composed of capricious, one-bite creations that set your palate and brain buzzing. Most diners, of course, opt for a three- or five-course menu (which still includes several fanciful "gifts" from the kitchen) or go the cautious route and order from the a la carte selections. I suspect that if the chef had his way, though, he'd gladly guide everyone who steps into his restaurant through a kaleidoscopic tour of his singular gastronomic universe.
On our tour, we ponder and consume such whimsies as melon cream soda paired with a thin, crisp piece of Serrano ham; a piece of crunchy, intensely salty chicken skin on which is plopped a tiny scoop of coleslaw sorbet; one grilled shrimp speared on an eyedropper filled with liquidy shrimp head sauce; chicken ravioli whose wrappings are made from agar agar (a gelatin substitute made from seaweed); and a white chocolate ball infused with sherry, served alongside a gritty but not altogether unpleasant gelled cube of Tang.
You get the gist. It's weird food.
Weird, but not without precedent. Blais, who several years ago turned the now-defunct Fishbone from fish house flop to a food lover's destination, takes his cues from an emerging genre that pushes the conventional boundaries about what and how we eat. He's spent time in the diverse kitchens of some of the world's great restaurants, including the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Daniel in New York and (for a brief time) the infamously imaginative El Bulli in Spain. His experiences have nurtured a mischievous, tongue-in-cheek aesthetic that still honors the seasonal, ingredient-driven essence of modern fine dining.
My advice to first timers? Go for the five-course prix fixe, which is really more like 12 courses. It gives you a chance to dabble in the fun, freaky stuff (crispy fish skin with tartar sauce and a shot of Guinness? Alrighty ...) while mainly concentrating on the more accessible dishes, of which there are plenty.
For instance, a succinctly seared piece of Alaskan halibut is poised on a tangle of squid "linguine" in a garlicky, herb-flecked scampi sauce that has Italian-American written all over it. Squid appears again, but this time stuffed with a loose, zesty lamb sausage evocative of Moroccan cuisine. Vanilla lends smooth, sweet notes to a papaya and coriander-laced Maine crab salad. Cured pork, cooked to a melting texture, finds unlikely soul mates in edamame and barley moistened by a bit of fish broth.
Unusual twists are never too far away, however. Blushing slices of duck breast with blustery espresso sauce, comforting turnips and vanilla mashed potatoes provide intrigue enough. To heighten the experience, the dish is served in a larger bowl outfitted with star anise, cinnamon sticks and large cuttings of orange rind. A server pours boiling water into the bowl and spicy, aromatic clouds suddenly swirl round your head. If Spa Sydell ever opens a restaurant, they should totally snag this gimmick.
Designate a sober driver for the evening so the rest of the party can imbibe freely. Blais has a startlingly large and absorbing wine list. Better yet, the tasting menus have wine pairings (it's $35 additional for the $69 five-course option) with some intriguing, lesser-known choices. A honeyed Lambert Bridge Viognier and a dusky Grenache from El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa are memorable standouts from my last visit.
If there's one area in Blais' progression of tastes that lags, it's the sweet offerings. No dessert flops outright, but they lack the same riveting tension between intellect and sensuality that the savory selections display. I'm fond of the earthy warmed parsnip cake with pears, ginger ice cream and frankincense aroma. (Can gold and myrrh be far behind? Naah -- that's too obvious.)
But I find the black olive ice cream too jarring paired with the oozing chocolate cake. An all-strawberry sampler of bread pudding, sorbet and slices with cubes of balsamic gelee is underwhelming: The flavor of each component needs more intensity, more get-up-and-go. Even in a dinner full of strange and jarring tastes, desserts should coddle you a bit. They should send you out the door with a satisfied sigh.
My favorite sweet is probably the God-awful-sounding foie gras milkshake, which fortunately tastes of vanilla and amaretto (only the viscosity hints of the fact that there might be liver lurking in there). The milkshake comes with the "Cristal" burger appetizer. This is Blais' droll take on a Krystal burger with a tiny slab of high quality beef and all the traditional condiments. When I asked our server what kind of cheese it came with, she replied, "Kraft single," with a smile.
After three visits, I've learned to just relax and enjoy Blais' renegade ways. Still, I can't help but worry about this restaurant. It's definitely got some challenges. I'm thrilled with what the Johnson Studio did with the interior. The quirky, labyrinthine space that once housed Peachtree Cafe and Paul Luna's short-lived Cafe Mystique looks like it was gutted and dipped in chocolate, with lashings of orange strewn here and there. But this space has a curse, and with good reason: It's an odd fit in Buckhead's village of bars frequented by unruly college kids.
Also -- and this is a question I've grappled with since my first meal here -- I wonder if this city is ready for Blais. Atlanta, for all its striving to be worldly, is a conservative restaurant town. Our diners want value for their buck. They crave luxury with a sense of the familiar.
Blais, as I see it, has two distinct camps to seduce: the typical diner who won't sneer at the restaurant's experimental vantage point and run screaming for a pizza joint down the block after a meal here; and the hard-core foodies, who will patronize this place but also expect it to constantly change. A "gift" of asparagus stalk swaddled in parmesan froth and caramel should be a one-time deal: I've had it three times in the last four months and, frankly, I'm over it.
But ultimately, I have faith in this guy, because he cooks like he has faith in himself. There are some folks who should flat out avoid this spot. You know who you are. But for those with an adventurous spirit (and, if so inclined, with the patience to sit through 31 courses), Blais offers some exhilarating new horizons not heretofore offered in this neck of the woods.
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