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Creature Feature 

Two Urban Licks wows with cinematic grandeur. But is the food worth the price of admission?

If I were to film a documentary about dining at Two Urban Licks (titled, of course, Buzz), the footage would begin by fading in on one frantically focused line cook. He stands over a stove with every burner firing and grabs a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the contents of which he sloshes into a saut pan filled with mussels. The beer can foams over when he thwacks it back on the counter. He curses under his breath but keeps moving.

Tossing the pan vigorously, he uses his tongs to add a couple chunks of herb butter, flicks in some garlic, gives the gleaming shells one more good shake, then covers them with another skillet to steam. He moves without thinking to the next task - a rack of small crocks filled with mac-n-cheese that needs to be finished under the broiler.

Cut to executive chef Scott Serpas, an imposingly tall man dressed in black. He obviously commands this wide-open, center-stage kitchen as he scans a line of white, crumpled tickets and barks food orders to his corps of mercurial cooks. After inspecting a round of newly finished plates, Serpas takes a last swig of his Red Bull, crunches the can slightly, throws it in the trash and resumes supervision.

Cue the noise level: an excruciating crescendo.

The camera would move over Serpas' shoulder for a slow, 360-degree pan of the restaurant: Impatient, hungry patrons cluster around the hostess stand. A glass tower full of steel barrels glimmers like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Thirsty hipsters stand on their toes in an attempt to score a drink at the frenzied bar. Dim light from crimson fixtures barely punctures the dark. Harried food runners dash through the throbbing crowd to deliver appetizers while beleaguered servers crank up welcoming smiles for their newly seated tables.

Pause for a moment on Todd Murphy's oversized, otherworldly painting: a young girl's back, radiating a studious vulnerability. Encroaching tigers. Dozens of vivid bird specimens. A memory of nature in an industrialized fiefdom.

Finally, the lens comes to rest on the vestal view of the Midtown skyline out the garage doors that comprise the restaurant's back wall. The blue flames from the kitchen's gargantuan rotisserie dance in the reflection. If you squint, it looks like Atlanta burning down all over again.

Scenes like that play out nightly at Two Urban Licks, over and over again. The heightened, cinematic theatrics of the Two experience has been shrewdly orchestrated by a duo of pros, Bob Amick and Todd Rushing. They tapped into the town's primal appetite for rambunctious dining at One Midtown Kitchen, where witty small plates and a juicy wine list reward those who can stand (or learn to enjoy) the wailing decibels and long waits.

Two takes the formula to bold extremes, and it has obviously paid off. Everyone wants in this place. (I'd not be surprised to hear that they hire off-duty traffic cops to work valet.) It's hard to resist strutting victoriously as you are led to your little outpost among the fabulousness.

The crowd is as diverse as I've ever seen in Atlanta. And yet, the giddy, almost naughty charge of the place makes everyone feel young at heart - a notion that was confirmed recently when a dishwasher dropped an entire load of plates in the middle of a typically frenetic night. The teeth-gritting sound reverberated through the restaurant. The patrons fell hush for just a moment, and then a good number of them spontaneously erupted into boisterous applause. Suddenly, we were all back in our college cafeteria.

The youthful exuberance is contagious, and it helps Two surmount a glaring issue: The food here can be maddeningly uneven.

To churn out the daunting volume of meals, Serpas has wisely created a succinct menu that's heavy on apps and smaller plates. (It's worth mentioning that the roving Richard Blais has indeed turned up on staff at Two as sous-chef, but the culinary vision remains Serpas'. Word is that Blais is being groomed for another Amick/Rushing restaurant in the works.) And service has been skillfully synchronized: Filtered water and warm, buttery garlic bread show up almost as soon as you are seated.

Several dishes can be relied upon as consistent pleasures. Salmon chips - undulating potato chips draped with smoked salmon and a slick of chipotle cream - arrive on a lithe wooden slab, looking as suave as they taste. Lamb lollipops sound dubious, but they're jubilant essays on favorite New American flavors: earthy lamb, mild goat cheese and a burst of spicy and sweet from grape chili jelly.

Meaty baby back ribs are even more satisfying when gnawed between bites of the sparkly grapefruit slaw that accompanies them. And those mussels furiously composed by the line cook? Plump and nicely seasoned. The yeasty depth of the beer infuses the herb butter and makes an irresistible potage for dunking.

Braised, scrumptiously moist pork shoulder, with its ramekin of cheddary mac-n-cheese, has yet to disappoint. It's also an ideal choice against which to sample reds from Two's innovative wine program (steel kegs of wine are purchased directly from outstanding wineries, cutting out the middle man and making well-made vintages much more affordable). I'll brave the crowds at Two again just for the pork and a glass of velvety Andrew Geoffrey Cabernet Franc or the ripe cherry siren of Destino Pinot Noir.

The kitchen also exercises a respectful hand with fish. The selections change frequently, but lemon sole swaddled in a pecan brown butter with crisp-tender yellow beans, black trumpet mushrooms and turnips was an eloquent expression of seasonal ingredients and careful technique.

I wish more offerings resonated in the same way. Overcooking and oversalting can be rampant. I reveled in the supple smokiness of the popular beef brisket the first time I ordered it. On a subsequent visit, I encouraged a friend to give the beef a shot. It was so desiccated, I wondered if a vampire had had its way with it. Disappointed but stubbornly optimistic, I gave it one more shot my final visit: The cut was fatty, which for brisket is fine by me, but still a little dry.

Same story with the roasted duck: One night, it's all crispy skin and silky meat. Another meal? Scorched bird, through and through. Order at your own risk.

Entrees can reveal the most egregious inconsistencies. I'd heard kudos about the New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp redolent with lemon and Worcestershire sauce. I found the shrimp, which were a pain to peel, so disconcertingly mealy that I never wanted to venture down that road again. Perhaps on a good night they actually are stellar.

And then some dishes are just good ol' fashioned clunkers. Lemon crab fritters offer nothing but bland creaminess. Frog legs pose a challenge. They fall apart when you try to swipe them through the blue cheese dip. Scallops with smoked gouda grits and roasted eggplant butter play one long, dull note: rich.

I understand the heart of the menu is designed to express solid American sensibilities, but I take serious umbrage with the dessert selection. Why is every option so leaden? Decent carrot cake, dry cupcakes, salty Rocky Road gelato, mushy bread pudding, gluey chocolate cream pie. Ugh! I'm in a post-modern fantasy! Give me whimsical - wacky ice cream sodas, a spiffy rendering of Bananas Foster, something designed to cap off the evening with a celebratory pop, not a gut-gripping thud.

I take a departing dodge through the glamorous digs and among the festive patrons to remind myself why we're all here. It's not really for the food, which I do hope improves as the kitchen refines its output in the face of such imposing crowds. No, we're here for the escape - for the chance to elude our lives and brush against gorgeous people, seductive scenery and titillating drama. Just like at the movies.

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