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Latitude Food and Drink restaurant review, Buckhead

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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.”

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

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.

Herb-roasted chicken breast (all photos by Becky Stein)

Herb-roasted chicken breast (all photos by Becky Stein)

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.

Beef tartare with aioli toasts

Beef tartare with aioli toasts

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.

Wine stacked in shelving. Pretty, but it could be a few degrees cooler.

Wine stacked in shelving. Pretty, but it could be a few degrees cooler.

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
1stars5Food: 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

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14 comments Add your comment

Edward

February 16th, 2012
10:10 am

That tartare looks and sounds great, and for $9 would be a bargain snack/light lunch offering with a glass of wine. Is there a bar to sit at and dine?

FoodFan

February 16th, 2012
11:14 am

Similar review to what I’ve heard from a couple of other people that have visited. Ecco is such a delight, though, that I have confidence Willix can get things righted here.

Gregg Freisthat

February 16th, 2012
12:35 pm

Latitude does indeed have a bar and great mixologist with some cool libations. Micah is a star and constantly working to make the food/experience extraordinary. While biased as one of the owners, I am pretty confident that Latitude is/will become an icon in the world of chef driven concepts in Buckhead — there are not many. I respect any review but can attest to the fact that our guest love it at Latitude….. really.

John Kessler

February 16th, 2012
12:48 pm

Thanks for piping in, Gregg. Your very thoughtful wine list took up too much of my attention!

Edward

February 16th, 2012
1:25 pm

Thank you, Gregg. I know where I’ll be having lunch one day next week, then.

eatoutatlanta

February 16th, 2012
1:39 pm

Very true… How can you forget the food? The food has to come first then how nice can the place be… an over priced art work will not make up for a bad dish…

RED

February 16th, 2012
2:11 pm

I enjoyed a wonderful dinner here a few weeks ago. We were very impressed with the food, service, wine & cocktails. Its a great addition to the area and the price is reasonable. Latitude is better than a one star restaurant.

braxton

February 16th, 2012
2:35 pm

Went with a group here the other night…decided to sit at the bar instead of a table, and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere/experience. It’s a nice addition to Phipps. The home-made 1//2 sour pickles for the bloody marys were a nice touch.

Growler

February 17th, 2012
1:03 pm

I agree with Red, John. I always love to read your reviews, but one star? We went there last month (party of 3) and were impressed. Maybe we hit the right spots– ordered the pork chop (far better than was stated in the CL review I saw recenlty), the great burger and scallops, and a good desert that you did not try (I think it was an apple tart a la mode). For whatever reason you critics don’t seem to like the place very much. We’ll be back and I hope they work out the rough edges you personally experienced and make it.

Mimosa

February 17th, 2012
1:17 pm

John, thanks for reviewing restaurants in our area of Buckhead. :) From the way you described Latitude’s dishes I would have expected 2 stars. But I’ve little doubt that owners and chef (whom I don’t know) who chose such great sounding dishes and a good location will do what it takes to get the stars up to 3!

The menu offerings seem to have a Mediterranean flair. The wines seem to be thoughtfully chosen and include some of my personal favourites. I am looking forward to dining at Latitude.

Walter LIttle

February 18th, 2012
3:09 pm

John, kudos on your restaurant reviews . . . they’re great! Just one question: when you (or any food writer) goes in to review a restaurant, does the wait and kitchen staff know that you’re a reviewer? Or, is the whole idea for them to treat you like “John Q. Customer” so that you’re review isn’t biased by them trying to give you preferential treatment? I’m just curious because television always portrays reviewers in an unfavorable light.

Baltisraul

February 19th, 2012
12:19 pm

Walter Little……..as long as JK has been around, food folks are going to recognize him alot of times. That should give them a heads up on his order. Guess that would be human nature. Hope JK will give us his own view of how this all works for him.

Mimosa

February 19th, 2012
6:08 pm

If I were a food critic I’d do what a friend who is an A-list actor used to do to keep from being recognised: change appearance.

When he travels my friend carries a long at least 2 hair pieces. He doesn’t usually wear glasses on screen so wearing glasses helps disguise who he is. If John is known for his glasses he ought to change frames to a different style or wear contacts.

John Kessler

February 20th, 2012
10:32 am

Hey, Walter, and thanks. I’ve been in Atlanta long enough, and had my picture in the paper often enough before this gig, that I am frequently recognized in the bigger-deal restaurants that are expecting a review. It’s pretty easy to Google me and find a snapshot where I have an expression like the “before” picture in a laxative ad. But I never reserve in my own name. Nor do I use a credit card with my name if I don’t personally know the folks running a restaurant. At Latitude, I suspect I wasn’t recognized at lunch until the end of the meal, but was recognized from the get-go at dinner. When I asked to have my too-warm red wine chilled, the manager came over to offer some white wine on the house — a nice gesture for VIPs. (Of course, I don’t consider myself a VIP and declined the wine. :) )