Bull run 

Taurus melds steakhouse sensibilities with scenester savvy

An elevator ride to a restaurant? In Atlanta?

I'm standing in the lobby of Taurus, stopped at the first hostess checkpoint and trying to remember the other times I've ascended (or descended) to dine in this city. Nikolai's Roof and Trader Vic's in the Hilton, of course. The Capital Grille in Buckhead. And ... and I can't think of any others. We're a splayed-out, ground-floor kinda dining town.

The elevator doors open, and a sliver of skyline shimmers beyond the voluminous room's windows -- a man-made substitute for our starless urban nights. It's a small bend in perception, this perched sensation, but one that augments the outsized yet accessible Americana that the restaurant strives to radiate.

Chef/owner Gary Mennie's much-anticipated riff on chophouses (and his zodiac sign) is an idiosyncratic, geometric hodgepodge of design elements. Corporate yet folksy. Sterile yet vampy. Disney yet den-of-iniquity. And in almost every way different from Canoe, where Mennie spent nearly 10 years in the kitchen.

The square space, awash in red and black, is anchored by a round, raised platform fitted with plush booths that the staff has dubbed "the bullring." When you've been seated at one of the tables that wrap around the bullring, it's hard to resist craning your neck and feeling a teensy bit slighted. It sure looks glamorous up there.

No matter where my table has been, the enormous circular construct hanging above the platform has never failed to trigger conversation. The installation is composed of angled folds of white leafing that surround a glowing red center. It has been compared, on various sojourns, to a hot air balloon, a rudder of the Titanic, the spacecraft in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and (as a nod to the glowing red center) a cervix. One astute comrade even suggested a ball might drop out of it on New Year's Eve.

The food and the service, in Taurus' first two months, have roused many of the same dichotomous feelings as the design. And yet, on my first visit, I was reminded of an important lesson: Sometimes a restaurant has to utterly botch a meal to ultimately win you over.

Our pixieish server rushed over to take our drink request as soon as we sat down. When she returned five minutes later with our libations, my friend apologized and asked if he could have his glass of juice (he was on an alcohol-free exercise regimen) without ice. It was a Thursday night and the restaurant was a little over half-full. The server nonetheless looked for a minute like a small child afraid of her bullying big brothers.

"They're really backed up over there," she said, blinking rapidly. "They'll be mad if I send it back."

My friend, with a mix of sympathy and irritation, reneged.

We ordered two appetizers, a split salad and two entrees. We chatted and caught up. Minutes passed. Fifteen. Twenty. A food runner sped by us with two plates in hand and stopped at the group next to us -- the group that still had their menus and hadn't decided on their meals yet. The food runner hightailed back to the kitchen before I could stop him to ask if he perhaps had our starters.

Thirty minutes. Our server, who'd been playing the I'm-not-looking-in-your-direction game, whizzed by us.

"They'll be right up," she called over her shoulder.

Forty minutes. Forty-five minutes. Um, ma'am?

She returned, flummoxed. "OK, I don't know what happened. Your ticket got lost or something. The manager is coming out with your appetizers in just a minute. We totally won't charge you for them. I've worked really hard to get good at this job and it really wasn't my fault, and I promise the rest of your meal will go super smoothly."

And, actually, it did.

Roberta, the composed manager, careened over with apps in hand. Oysters Rockefeller had a smoky nuance of bacon that lent an extra layer of decadence to the creamed spinach sauce. A peekytoe crab cocktail with diced peppers and avocado needed a jolt of salt, but the ingredients themselves were sweet and zippy. Overused balsamic vinegar actually seemed integral to our roasted pear salad: The vinegar's woodsy complexity coaxed out the floral perfume in the yielding pear.

Entrees came moments later. Though five seafood entrees are offered, meat is what it's all about at Taurus. Be sure that someone in your group selects one of the nightly specials listed down the left-hand side of the menu. The Thursday night special is an Asian-style duck stuffed with fruits and spices while roasting. Though the apples and pears and star anise are not presented with the duck, you can taste their autumnal essence in each crispy bite. Shazam.

Prices are almost suspiciously affordable for this level of ambition. On the night of the internal wait, I indulged in the grilled rib eye "Delmonico" (a confusing and potentially redundant name since a Delmonico cut is typically the same cut as a rib eye). It fetches $23, which seems bargain basement compared to the top dollars charged at high-end steakhouses, and has the gutsy char and succulently plush interior of a distinguished piece of beef. The only off-key element is an overuse of tarragon in the accompanying thin bean casserole. Its potent licorice pounce clashes with the steak's metallic tang.

Actually, you'll most fully enjoy Taurus if you approach it like a steakhouse. Look for starters that are classics in the genre, like the chunky chopped vegetable salad, or jumbo prawn cocktail with its tingly Bloody Mary sauce. You always need fried potatoes in a meal with macho slabs o' meat, and the kitchen obliges with a witty goat cheese "tart." The melty cheese is sandwiched between two burnished sheets of potato slices, with a little tomato for acidic balance. It squishes and runs and crackles and delights.

If I were a vegetarian trapped in this cathedral of carnage, I'd go for the goat cheese tart and then ask for a slew of sides as my main course. Still-toothy cauliflower comes swaddled in a just-creamy-enough gratin. The twice-baked eggplant reminds me of Indian baigan bharta -- so fluffy and mild it's almost like a soufflé. And the Parmesan potato gratin has been packed into a proper denseness. You need a little elbow grease to sink your fork into it.

The meat-eating majority automatically get the cake of Parmesan potato gratin paired with steaky lamb "T-bones" and the cauliflower underneath a supple pan-roasted filet mignon. Nonetheless, request a side of silken garlic cream spinach or spiced sweet potatoes for the table to share.

Follow the same steakhouse rules for dessert. No fruity concoctions, thanks. Dig into the brioche bread pudding with the melting chocolate recesses -- a nifty variation on the molten chocolate cake cliché. Or polish off a thin strip of lightly sweet pecan tart. Did I mention the cost of these happy endings? Three dollars each.

If I'm not sold on Taurus in every way -- the two seafood dishes I sampled left me underwhelmed and much of the service is worrisomely green -- the price points alone will lure me back. As will that "Delmonico" steak. And the duck on Thursday. And the view out the window. And even that wacked installation hovering in the center of the room that intrigues as much as it repels.

OK. Maybe I'm pretty much sold on Taurus after all.


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