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Monday, November 1, 2010

Are you yawning yet?

I've gotten some mildly annoyed mail about my recent first look at Napoleon's Grill.

I'll start with a simple fact that needs to be reported. I implied that the restaurant had a lot of money behind it, compared to its new neighbor, Sprig. That was on the basis of the really impressive interior and the involvement of the people from Front Page News, a popular Midtown pub.

In fact, I'm told, the restaurant was quite a financial stretch to open and that the impressive interior is almost entirely a hands-on labor of the three partners.

More important — and I questioned myself about this, too — is my commentary on Ryan Aiken's food at the pub. As I said in my "Grazing" column, Aiken has long been one of my favorite chefs for his creative way with inexpensive food at his former venues, Burrito Art, Misto and Saba.

But the truth is those restaurants have not had the vigorous success that Napoleon's is already exhibiting (500 people on Friday nights). The reason, of course, is that the menu, as I wrote, is inexpensive and almost entirely tried-and-true pub favorites. (And the accent on beer doesn't hurt, no doubt.)

But that does raise a question that chefs and owners have asked themselves repeatedly in Atlanta and even more often now that the economy is in such ruin: How do you stay afloat without producing a menu that mainly attracts non-foodie types?

Aiken did have a few foodie-attractive dishes on the menu but they didn't sell well and even when they did sell, he couldn't be sure of their quality unless he was on hand to prepare them. And, of course, with 500 meals to compose on a Friday night, it's hard, whoever's on duty, to maintain an eye on a few dishes. Still, word is he's working to include some more interesting dishes in the future.

Of course, this problem — the dumbing down of cuisine, to put it rather harshly — is hardly limited to chefs like Aiken. Some of our best fine-dining chefs have simply fled Atlanta to cities that can still sustain their work. (I doubt that Chef Sotohiro Kosugi is whipping up maki stuffed with fried chicken and tartar sauce in New York.) The best example of an extremely talented chef who has coped with this without leaving town is Shaun Doty. He closed Shaun's recently to put his energies into Yeah! Burger, just as Richard Blais has done with (the more esoteric) Flip.

All of this leaves a critic a bit bamboozled. It's really not fair to compare fried calamari with marinara to a soft-boiled farm-fresh quail egg peppered with chicken-beak shavings and nested in pickled seaweed from the Adriatic (or whatever). But when you see a chef whose brilliance has been sidetracked by the economy and prosaic tastes, can you avoid comparing his past to his present cooking? It's all well and good to say a dish should be judged on its own terms, but, as Gertrude Stein wrote, "fried calamari is fried calamari is fried calamari."

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