Micah Willix isn’t the kind of chef who splays his personality all over a menu. He’s not a Richard Blais or a Kevin Rathbun, and I doubt he could summon forth the foodie razzamatazz that judges look for on TV’s “Top Chef.”
Rather, Willix seems hyperaware of mood and tone — a quality that made him greatly effective as the opening chef at Midtown’s Ecco. That big, caramel-lit restaurant with its smooth jazz sensibility felt fully formed from the get-go. Customers fell for Ecco’s suave small plates and lusty pastas — the rounds of fried goat cheese with honey and cracked pepper, the chili-braised pork with fresh pappardelle — as they fell for the restaurant. The food fit the space perfectly, hand in glove.
Now Willix is working in a very different environment. Late last year, he left Ecco to open Latitude Food and Drink in Buckhead’s Phipps Plaza with three business partners.
Set in what used to be The Grape, a wine bar, Latitude seats only 74 in two small, somberly decorated rooms. Unlike the enormous exhibition kitchen he enjoyed at Ecco, Willix now cooks from a tiny shoebox. So, by necessity, he serves a tightly edited menu with only a half-dozen starters and a half-dozen mains. Despite its high-gloss address, Latitude is a low-key American bistro.
True to form, Willix prepares the food the room warrants: simple, familiar fare to go with all that wine you see stacked in modular shelving on the wall. The food can taste just right — not flashy, not tarted up. That missing-link cuisine of good product, classic technique and fair price. But it can also veer into dullness and, worse, fail to lend any personality to the whole venture. Latitude feels more generic than it should.
That’s a shame, because Willix really can sell basic dishes. Gorgeously seasoned beef tartare ($9) with fried capers, roasted garlic and aïoli toasts, is the marvel of precise knifework it needs to be, each tiny cube offering facets of flavor. Pan-roasted scallops on a bed of crisp-edged, lemon-zinged oyster mushrooms ($13) may be a touch oversalted, but the scallop lover in me appreciates the restraint of the recipe. No pork belly, no mango salsa, just fine shellfish.
And it’s not like I hit the town looking for a chicken breast for dinner. But if I were trolling for food before a movie at Phipps Plaza, I’d be happy with the plump herb-roasted chicken breast ($16) here. It arrives sliced and pearling juices, with braised carrots, fennel, onion and a pool of natural juice. The bronzed skin invites the eye, and the gentle seasoning encourages you to explore the wine list.
How nice to order a bottle of juicy, tangy, richly concentrated 2007 Nicolis Valpolicella “Seccal” ($55) — a ripasso style that tastes like a baby version of its powerhouse brethren, amarone. (Ripasso wines gain color and body from a second fermentation on the skins, seeds and stems left from the crush.) More than that, how nice to find so many food-friendly reds in the $40-$60 range: a Super Tuscan, a Loire cabernet franc-based red, an affordable nebbiolo from the Piedmont, some thoughtfully chosen domestic pinot noirs.
Willix’s cooking engages this wine list like a tennis instructor who always gently returns the ball to your forehand to keep the rally going. A butcher steak ($29) arrives with wilted greens on the plate and a side bowl holding a salad of smoked fingerling potatoes tossed in homemade crema. The lean meat (Brasstown Beef from North Carolina) has a clean flavor and dense texture that fit nicely into the contours of this entree.
See where I’m headed here? Approach Latitude in the right mood and plot the right course with your order, and your reward is a chill, tasty American bistro meal like you almost never find in Buckhead. A right nice couple of courses, a memorable bottle of wine to share and a bill that feels reasonable as you shove it into your pocket and head upstairs to catch a movie.
But the kitchen’s performance is more inconsistent than it can afford to be with this small menu. Mahi mahi ($28) tastes dull and a bit dry atop an odd mélange of quinoa, winter squash and blood orange that brings out unappetizing characteristics (beady, grassy) in this grain. Breaded half-moons of eggplant ($8) don’t get any help from sugary sweet tomato conserva. Seriously, Heinz ketchup would offer more balance. Both desserts we try — an overly dense and refrigerator-cold chocolate tart ($7) and doughy doughnuts ($6) over blood orange sauce — need work.
Worse, a salad of grilled shrimp ($14) with arugula, avocado and blood oranges arrives so gloppily dressed and so, so, so oversalted we have to return it. (Kenny Perlman, a partner in the restaurant who manages the front of the house, graciously offers a replacement and takes the salad off the bill.)
Other problems undermine the experience here at times. That room temperature wine can seem a good 5 to 10 degrees too warm, depending on the bottle. An otherwise attentive waiter can suddenly find his attention divided among four or five tables located all across the room during the lunch rush. The dining rooms have that hermetically sealed, inside-a-mall quality.
A great dish with some real pow would do a lot to bring things into focus. There is one — a burger of freshly ground lamb and beef ($14) served on a crusty ciabatta roll with Gruyère cheese, rosemary aïoli and arugula. It’s a perfectly luscious thing that, once you try, you’ll remember every time you set foot into Phipps Plaza.
More, please! I don’t want Micah Willix to showboat, but I do want him to make his case. Latitude needs to be less about the overall experience and more about his food.LATITUDE FOOD AND DRINK 3500 Peachtree Road (inside Phipps Plaza), Atlanta, 678-990-9463 Food: Simple (sometimes too simple) American bistro fare Service: Very good, but gets harried during a rush Best dishes: Lamb burger, roast chicken breast, beef tartare Vegetarian selections: Salads and side dishes Credit cards: All major Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays Children: Better for older kids; little kids might be disruptive in this space. Parking: Both valet and self-parking at Phipps Plaza. The valet stand is just outside the entrance to the restaurant. Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: Yes; look for it to open in the spring. Takeout: Yes