Rathbun’s is, of course, packed. My wife and I decide to stop by around 6:30 on a Thursday evening as boisterous groups file past us and up the loading-dock entrance. Parties of six here and eight there, lavish birthday celebrations and swarms of hungry-looking business dudes raring to throw down some big California cabernets on their expense accounts.
We make it to the hostess stand, but don’t even set foot in the dim, noisy dining room. Instead we find ourselves ushered out to the patio with its burbling water feature and corrugated roof, the only part of the Inman Park restaurant that can accommodate walk-in customers on busy nights. That’s just fine by us on a balmy fall evening with our teenagers safely at home. We can talk.
“Wow, it’s been years,” my wife realizes with a start. We used to come here every few months, usually with another couple for one of those evenings of passing plates around the table, ordering another bottle of wine, shouting over the din and eating more than we had bargained for. But who can resist dessert at Rathbun’s? Nobody I’ve ever met.
We look at the menu, startled to recall its length. That’s right, there are more than 20 appetizers and nearly as many entrees. Three soups. Appealing sides like brown butter cauliflower mash, and charred corn with Gouda. Half of the dishes sound like plates of food I want to bury my head in. Roasted pork belly tacos with orange hoisin? Sea scallop Benedict on country ham grits? Braised beef short rib with spaghetti squash carbonara and a Bantam egg yolk to swirl into it? Yes, please. Healthy eating can wait for another night.
Personally, I’ve got a soft spot for this joint. I appreciate the energy of chef Kevin Rathbun’s menu (overseen by chef de cuisine George Brooks) and the way his kitchen pushes big, generous flavors above all other considerations. I admire the low-key precision of the service (thanks to eagle-eyed manager Cliff Bramble) and the fact you never wait long for your food. I cherish that feeling of falling into the special groove of this place — the ultimate hidden warehouse restaurant in a city that loves them.
But the critic in me looks for and finds faults over the course of three visits. The bar has plainly ignored the cocktail revolution that has happened in this city since Rathbun’s opened in 2004. The wine list comes up short, particularly if you’re looking for a lone glass. I resented paying $11.50 for a glass of simple Nobilo Icon pinot noir from New Zealand one night (a wine that often retails for less than $20 a bottle), but there wasn’t much in lighter-bodied red to choose from.
No, the eating is a lot more fun than the drinking at Rathbun’s. That said, the kitchen can’t always execute its vast and sensationally busy menu with consistency. It hearkens back to the times when chefs threw around Thai, Southwestern and Italian ingredients with impunity, and the word “eclectic” became an overused cliché.
So I have no trouble finding busy, sloppy dishes as I explore the menu. I’m looking at you, rubbery little chicken livers ($7.50), sloshing about in a sauce of olive oil, maple syrup and pistachio. And you, lamb scaloppine ($8.75), thin fried cutlets dressed with diced pancetta and goat Gouda cheese in a slick of sticky butter sauce. The flavors in both dishes are brassy but also vague and muddy — the rich, gooey business you might appreciate after a couple of martinis but only after a couple of martinis.
But don’t let a dish that’s not exactly to your liking get in the way at Rathbun’s because there is such easy, friendly pleasure to be had. Order, and keep ordering.
I still love those eggplant steak fries ($7.50), custardy inside their shells of real old-fashioned bread crumbs and dusted with fine confectioners’ sugar. A gentle tumble of loose crab meat with creole mustard inside a shattery tart shell ($10.75) has terrific flavor against a stripe of spicy pepper ketchup on the plate. It’s like mama’s bridge party food but 100 times more awesome.
And hello roasted bone marrow ($8.20)! You’re beautiful, even more so with your grilled ciabatta bread, fig preserves and tiny cellar filled with flaky Maldon sea salt. Have this fatty goodness, then do penance by ordering a salad of zucchini cut into supple ribbons ($6.75) and dressed with basil vinaigrette and flakes of Parmesan cheese.
Have a spot-on meal at Rathbun’s, and you get that feeling of floating away on a raft of yumminess. That beef short rib ($19.75) with its seriously heart-stopping spaghetti squash carbonara only gets better when you add some of that roasted corn with Gouda ($6.95) into the mix. Kevin Rathbun flavors are like James Cameron movies — sure they hit you over the head, but they also transport you.
They’re also canny in a way you rarely see elsewhere in Atlanta. I find myself smitten with the Greek wedge salad ($7.75) — just a wedge of iceberg with cucumbers, sweet pepper strips, feta cheese crumbles and dry-cured black olives. Why? Its vinaigrette prepared with (catch this) dried oregano and canola oil is so pitch-perfect. It is exactly that first homemade salad dressing you tried as a kid in a Greek restaurant, that herb-tempered tang, that feeling of oil slipping from crisp greenery. But 100 times more awesome.
Likewise, my wife relishes her crispy duck breast with Thai risotto ($24.25). She loves sawing at the ideally crisped and defatted skin and plump, pink breast with a steak knife. The rice? It doesn’t register as Thai in any way despite its supposed “green curry essence,” but it provides the right sweet, garlicky tang as a backdrop.
I have to don my critic’s hat again when the kitchen succumbs to avoidable cooking errors. Those pork tacos ($8.95) give you a sloppy kiss of sweet flavor, but the stringy dryness of the meat keeps you from melting into it. Double-cut lamb chops ($38.25) from the “second mortgage” section of prestige entrees come a full degree underdone. It’s an easy fix, but one that makes me think the cooks need to watch their temperatures better.
But I have only rare complaints about the dessert program. Pastry chefs Kirk Parks and Rebecca Weil prepare an incredible variety of mini-desserts ($3.95) that provide about four generous bites each. I can never resist the signature banana peanut butter cream pie under a swirl of browned meringue, and the gooey toffee cake with Jack Daniel’s ice cream is surely the best rendition of this dessert in town. Watch the daily specials for the likes of spiced plum and date crisp with oatmeal streusel and vanilla ice cream.
Rathbun’s is far from flawless. The critic who lives in my head says it needs to pare down the increasingly outdated menu, upgrade the drinks program and work on its execution. But my heart wins out on this one. It’s a special place that still defines one kind of greatness in Atlanta.RATHBUN’S 112 Krog Street, Atlanta, 404-524-8280 Food: Big flavors, big pleasures and a few missteps from an inimitable, eclectic menu. Service: Low-key and friendly, but quietly on target; some of the best service in town. Best dishes: creole mustard crab tart, salt and pepper shrimp, zucchini-Parmesan salad, Greek wedge salad, braised beef short rib, warm gooey toffee cake, banana peanut butter cream pie Vegetarian selections: quite a few Credit cards: all major Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays Children: not a great spot for small kids Parking: valet and self-parking in an enclosed lot Reservations: yes Wheelchair access: full Smoking: no Noise level: high in the main dining room; the enclosed patio makes for a good alternative Patio: a very nice one Takeout: yes