Ladies and gentlemen, behold the pork bun. This beguiling handful starts with a folded ivory oval of steamed Chinese bread, as soft and warm as your mama’s cheek. Into it goes the tangy crunch of pickled cucumber, the sweet funk of hoisin sauce and a fat chunk or two of hot pork belly. Think: crisp meat and quivering fat that dissolves into rivulets of pork nectar in the heart of this three-bite wonder. Everyone who eats a pork bun goes nuts for it.
You used to have to go to the restaurant that popularized the modern pork bun – Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York’s East Village – to have one. Then a few more Asian or Asian-enough restaurants debuted their pork buns, first in New York and then in other cities.
Now there are pork buns ($8 for two) at Kaleidoscope Bistro & Pub – a loud, drinky new restaurant in Brookhaven. Some may decry the popularization of a once-cult dish, but these tasty morsels sure stave the craving. It’ll be hard for me to drive through Brookhaven without picturing myself at the bar with a bun or two and a glass of Ode to Mercy Brown Ale ($5) from Georgia’s newest craft brewery, Wild Heaven. The very thought makes me happy.
Kaleidoscope is the first locally grown restaurant in a while to really understand the cutting edge of the mainstream. I say this with real admiration rather than faint praise; few places can pull off those dishes that people want to eat when they’re out not for foodie communion or home-meal replacement, but for fun. The nightly throngs attest to just how well this place gets it.
Owner/chef Joey Riley cut his chops in this milieu when it was the reigning style in Atlanta. After years as an executive chef for the Here to Serve Restaurant Group (Tom Tom a Bistro, Goldfish) and at Buckhead Diner, he understands the glossy pleasure of certain dishes as they turn from exotic to familiar. Moving easily from Thai to Southwestern to Mediterranean to American comfort, he goes for the contact high – that feeling of “I totally feel like spicy chicken wings and cocktails,” or “I totally want to melt into a pile warm, cheesy goo,” or “Pork buns!” He succeeds well and puts out mostly consistent food at high volume, though I think a few too many heavy-handed dishes that were cutting edge mainstream 10 years ago gum up the menu.
The room – with its tile floors, bright paint, gleaming wooden tables and open kitchen – brings to mind that era of splashy Atlanta dining before all the farmers moved in with their muted colors and baby turnips. Go early if you don’t feel like waiting for a table (the restaurant doesn’t take reservations) or find a place to wedge yourself in the bottleneck front bar. Groups of young women, loud older guys, middle-aged couples on double dates and everyone else who calls Brookhaven home will be your company.
Did I say it was a fun bar? I appreciate the beers on tap, which range from that Wild Heaven to Belgian Delirium Tremens strong pale ale, and find the list of wines by the glass smart. I loved the “Farmer’s Mary” cocktail ($8.50) made with heirloom tomato juice (the bartender cracks open a canning jar) and garnished with pickled okra. And, yes, it was 7 p.m. and I felt like a bloody mary before dinner: It’s that kind of place. You can even get a dish of house-fried spicy pork rinds ($4) with a squeeze of lime.
It’s an easy transition to slightly larger plates once you score a table. The kitchen calls its appetizers “first impressions” and these are certainly the best ones to be had. Berkshire pork potstickers ($9) arrive with crisp bottoms and a bright ginger/sesame sauce. The fat, spicy chicken wings ($8) with a shower of blue cheese crumbles and finger-licking “Kaleidoscope sauce” taste like Saturday night on the town. Yowza-yummy.
The “best crabcake ever” ($12) may not earn its superlative, but is as good as the steakhouse crab cake we’ve all learned to love, with its loosely bound jumbo lump meat and cracked mustard sauce. Mussels ($10) – an enormous portion in garlicky tomato basil butter – might have qualified as best had they not been overcooked.
Riley sometimes has an eye for the right dishes to steal and the good sense to prepare them without embellishment. Hamachi crudo ($9) brings five juicy slices of raw yellowtail with slivers of hot pepper, cilantro leaves and a wash of ponzu sauce, and it’s the always-welcome dish that chef Nobu Matsuhisa invented years ago.
And sometimes Riley doesn’t. The whole sizzling catfish ($16) that was the it dish long ago at Azalea restaurant in Buckhead looks a fright. The entire fish comes with arched tail in a batter-fried coating. Super-salty fermented Chinese black beans blanket this poor, overdressed critter, which wears a bouffant cap of pickled ginger on its head and stares glassy-eyed at a lime crown. It looks like the Lady Gaga of bottom feeders.
Other overwrought entrees fail to live up to the promise of the appetizers. A skillet-fried chicken breast ($18), dry and salty, packs an ultra-crunchy jacket of batter that tires your teeth, and its side of collards amp up the salt quotient even more. Shrimp and grits ($17) comes so tricked out with cheese and creamy sauce that we opt to shake the shrimp free before eating them. I liked the piece of grilled mahi-mahi atop a tostado ($16), but found the mishmash of green chile grits, beet-red fried tortilla and guacamole a kaleidoscope of glop.
And what of this Kaleidoscope burger ($8 for a single patty, $12 for a double) that won best at a Virginia-Highland street festival? Pimento cheese, green tomato chow chow and cole slaw adorn this heart-attack heap. The bun quickly gives up on it, and so will you.
Both of my meals started with great drinks and tasty appetizers, and both ended with lots of uneaten, heavy food on our plates. Kaleidoscope Bistro & Pub is the kind of restaurant where you peter out. The fork goes down, the plate gets pushed, enough. But it’s also the kind of restaurant that you want to go to again, that you put on your “good bet in the neighborhood” list.
Why? Because that contact high is awfully fun.KALEIDOSCOPE BISTRO & PUB 1410 Dresden Drive, Atlanta, 404-474-9600 Food: Best-hits American bistro fare, competently prepared Service: On top of its game Best dishes: Chinese steamed buns, crab cake, pork potstickers, bloody mary, mussels with tomato and basil Vegetarian selections: Salads and sides Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover Hours: Food served 5-10 p.m., Mondays-Thursdays and Sundays; 5-11 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays Children: Fine if you go early, but is too noisy and scene-y after 7 p.m. for most kids Parking: Valet and on-site Reservations: No, but there’s a call-ahead list Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Very high Patio: Not set up as this review was being written but should debut soon Takeout: Yes