At the Sound Table, 5 o’clock brings the “Violet Hour” when the evening drinkers start to wander in, and barkeep Paul Calvert mixes a daily special Prohibition-era cocktail with a recipe derived from historical records. Named for a line from T. S. Eliot, Violet Hour has become a popular expression in today’s cocktail culture, as it sounds far cooler than Happy Hour.
That said, the much more intriguing time of night at this edgy Old Fourth Ward restaurant comes later — 9:30 or so, when diners are happy with wine and gin, the wood-slat benches they sit on start to glow from lights beneath, and a DJ slips into the long-empty booth in the back of the narrow space that has suddenly turned neon green. With thumps of ambient music come guests who mill about rather than sit. A few tables quietly disappear to make room.
You’re still eating? Good! The food is what the kitchen likes to call “modular,” so it makes perfect sense to order up a final quartet of lamb meatballs ($9), their coarse texture and tingly spice so suave against the silk of eggplant puree. Not driving? Then you get another glass of that off-dry German scheurebe, the kind of white wine that is as energizing as the room you’re sitting in.
The Sound Table — now in its sixth month — is the newest concept from the guys behind Midtown’s Top Flr. Like that restaurant, it occupies a narrow, two-story spot with more drinking downstairs and more eating above. It also features a wonderfully curated bar program and well-edited menu with a mix-and-match attitude. But as the clever double pun of the name suggests, it has a dual personality — both a DJ’s clubbish lair and a dining destination. The small-plates menu is indeed sound: chef de cuisine Brendan Keenan cooks with a broad palate, fine technique and a keen eye for presentation. The food is easy to like though nothing jumped out to me as worthy of love. Go for the clever vibe, and the high quality of the food comes as a bonus.
The broadly ranging yet compact menu is indeed as modular as a Lego starter kit. Two dozen starters, sides, salads and mains trot the globe, with prices that rarely creep into the double digits.
You want a killer cocktail from what is surely the most writerly drinks list in town. What speed do you want? Sours, Citrus & Coolers? Flips & Fizz? Tiki? Or maybe Strong, Rich & Strange?
There’s the ticket. The Stone Mountain ($10) blends cognac and apple brandy with pine and pear liqueurs for an autumn walk in an orchard with Charles Bukowski. The Bohannon ($9) makes gin prickle with herbal green chartreuse, smoky Swedish Punch (a liqueur) and flecks of black pepper. Kudos to Calvert for finding the sweet/savory balance in each drink.
But do stop at one cocktail before dinner unless you’re just planning to sway in front of the DJ booth. As the food arrives, you’ll have little idea of what’s a starter and what’s a main. No biggie, dudes, we’re going modular, and all kinds of white slab plates begin to pile up.
Keenan is a meat whisperer. He gets all kinds of crisp, charred deliciousness on the skin of a spatchcocked chicken ($11), grilled simple with lemon, olive oil and herbs. Spatchcocked? He removes the backbone and the keel (breast) bone so the birdie grills flat and evenly.
Oaxacan hanger steak ($13) doesn’t get much help from its chile marinade and polite pico de gallo salsa, but wowie-zowie is that some gorgeous pinkish-red steak. Slice after slice at a killer price. Chinese pork ribs ($12), on the other hand, come impregnated with so much flavorful chile-soy marinade and cooked to such a degree that they taste like meat candy. I mean this as the highest praise.
Here’s a swell Sound Table scenario: Go with a friend and get a table upstairs, where people go for more conversation than scene. Order lots of meat and split a bottle of wine. May I recommend the 2008 Conreria d’Scala Dei Les Brugueres ($54) — a minerally, full-bodied Spanish wine made in the Priorat region from white garnacha grapes that gets more interesting as it reaches room temperature?
The firing-on-all-cylinders Sound Table feels like it’s about actual dining — good wine, good food — which is why the snacky things may come off as forgettable or even a little annoying. Fried chickpeas and capers ($4) in sweet curry salt feel soft and greasy in all the wrong ways, and they make your fingers smell funny. A smoked trout spread special ($8) has a hollow campfire flavor and no fish-oil unctuousness. Black truffle arancini ($7) — the Italian-style fried rice balls — start with a mushy risotto.
I also find that some of the Asian stylings on the menu rely too heavily on soy sauce. I detect it in a silly version of goi ga ($7), the Vietnamese chicken and cabbage salad that usually smacks so appealingly of the lime juice/fish sauce dressing called nuoc cham. A side of baby bok choy and yellow squash ($4) came just shy of delicacy thanks to the tongue-curling edge of truffled soy. As far as the sides go, I’d opt for either the fried cauliflower with peanuts ($5) or the trim portion of Belgian-style fries ($4), each crisp potato baton a thing to savor.
Then again, if you get together with a group of friends, order those second cocktails and pass each boldly seasoned dish around the table, this food may hit the spot. If you’re sitting on the bottom floor, with the bar stretching along one wall and the dining area getting more crowded as the evening goes along, you might find the Sound Table captures the feeling of that hour — royal blue turning to indigo — when the evening is full of delicious possibility.THE SOUND TABLE 483 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta; 404-835-2534 Food: International flavors on a menu designed for good drinks, good friends and lots of passing plates around Service: Knowledgeable and attentive Best dishes: Spatchcocked chicken, lamb meatballs, Chinese pork ribs Vegetarian selections: Side dishes and salads, but not this kitchen’s strength Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: Kitchen opens 6-10:30 p.m.; Mondays-Thursdays, 6-11 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays Children: Not really an atmosphere for kids, but would be fine for teenagers on the early side Parking: Complimentary parking in adjacent lot; nearby lots charge $3 for customers Reservations: Only for parties of 8 or more Wheelchair access: Bottom floor only Smoking: Outside, in front of restaurant Noise level: Moderate to high, depending on time of night Patio: No Takeout: Yes