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The Lawrence restaurant review, Midtown

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As far as I know, The Lawrence is the first restaurant that has its own special rune. This character looks a bit like a sideways bingo card attached to a bomb detonator, potentially of Celtic or Sumerian derivation, or even Middle Hobbit. It appears both on the menu and chalked onto a blackboard behind the bar; it pops out here and there throughout the restaurant and insinuates itself onto your brainpan. You suspect British guerrilla street artist Banksy may soon cotton to it.

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

John Kessler is the chief dining critic for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This glyph-like logo suggests, aptly, a fresh look at the language of today’s restaurant culture. Owner Patrick La Bouff, who first became known as the brains behind the underground supper club Dinner Party, intends just that. He and his business partners (manager Darren Carr and executive chef Shane Devereux) developed the Lawrence in the Midtown space that was once Lupe Taqueria (and Cuerno before that) with an eye to the 30-ish neighbors living in the nearby high-rise apartments and Craftsman bungalows.

These guys run a couple of restaurants that are easier to pigeonhole. Top FLR is an all-hours bistro that serves wallet-friendly entrees, pizza and wine whenever you need dinner to happen. Sound Table nails the quaffs-and-nibbles menu of good cocktails and interesting small plates that work in lieu of a real dinner.

The Lawrence leaves the size and shape of your meal up to you. It sets a plainer, boxier stage – an open kitchen, a lot of wood, a bar – but has far higher culinary ambitions. Devereux, working with chef de cuisine George Brooks, has devised a menu of dishes and flavors you’ve never seen elsewhere. The portions range from teensy “bar snacks” to sizable entrees, with a couple of grades of bigness between. Little gifts from the kitchen bookend the meal – perhaps a little cup of oniony ramp soup to start and a gooey citrus jelly drop to finish. Prices are remarkably low, and though the wine list is skeletal, the servers offer to pair each dish.

Crispy pig ears and a Lady Lawrence (photos by Becky Stein)

Crispy pig ears and a Lady Lawrence (photos by Becky Stein)

The Lawrence is Atlanta’s first next-gen gourmet restaurant. As such, I consider it a project in development. A good third of the menu gets high marks for breathtaking sophistication and execution. A third needs tweaks and better ingredients. And a third feels like cool ideas gone awry. Often for better, sometimes for worse, the food is high concept.

Salt and pepper tofu: an ode to Buford Highway

Salt and pepper tofu: an ode to Buford Highway

The bar may be my favorite place to dine, thanks to the alchemy of cocktails and “bar snacks” that can happen here. Feathery threads of fried pig ear with fennel salt ($4) are so delicious I don’t mind thinking they once perked up to calls of “soo-eeey!” Bar manager Eric Simpkins has one of the best palates for softer, fruitier libations, and you shouldn’t shy away from his Lady Lawrence ($10), a gin cocktail with a gentle infusion of Earl Grey tea and lavender. Dude gets lavender.

Also weirdly great with cocktails: the salt and pepper tofu ($5), its crunchy warmth highlighted with chile, cilantro and vinegar. It tastes like real Vietnamese food. Local radishes and baby turnips ($3) come with a sprinkling of vadouvan (a kind of curry) and a bit of creamy dip – perfect for that early moment in the meal when you need a little something other than bread in your stomach.

But if you sit in the dining room, your attention will go more to the “small plates” and “medium plates” sections of the menu. Hot potted shrimp ($6) served in a small canning jar is kind of brilliant, not so much for the squiggly curls of shrimp but for the elixir in which they swim, a bubbly mélange of cultured butter and massaman curry that you sop up with toast points.

Turn from this to a set of duck tongue carnitas ($10) tacos. You take your first bite of these fantastic crunch-goo bits with trepidation, and the second one with gusto. Order right, and the Lawrence is your new favorite restaurant.

Stuffed poussin, an accomplished dish

Stuffed poussin, an accomplished dish

But there will be more than a few “hmmmms” once you start exploring the menu. An English pea salad ($8), seasonal and local though it may be, shouldn’t feature starchy, flavorless peas. Just picked peas are great, right? Then you go to frozen. A red romaine ($7) salad with beets just seems dead on the plate, flat and badly dressed, with the driest mini-chunk of burrata cheese I’ve ever encountered. This kitchen is better as a Buford Highway tribute band than when it plays the local farm-to-table card.

And then we get to the “what were they thinking?” items. I want to love with abandon the golden rice porridge ($5) marjoram, feta and rye, but I can’t discern anything more than muddy flavors, muddy color and muddy textures. The “fish sticks” ($9) medium plate plays with Southern French flavors, pairing fried sticks of salt cod brandade and chickpea panisse over a roasted tomato sauce. But the dish is too salty to eat.

Once you get to “large plates,” you may start feeling the love again. Heritage pork cheeks with fresh pasta ribbons and fromage blanc ($18) tastes so rich and deep in its nearly sticky sauce that you pause after each bite to savor. And a half-stuffed poussin ($20) is the chicken dish of dreams in its slick of mushroom jus commingling with a foie gras butter. It’s a dish that could pass muster at any fine restaurant. The more you eat, the more you note how the intensity of the seasoning cedes to a careful layering of flavors.

Small desserts include a Thai tea crème brûlée ($6) studded with tapioca pearls and a golden raisin butter cake topped with parsnip ice cream ($6), both a lot of fun for those of us who want a little bite of something sugary.

These desserts send you out with a sweet taste, not weighted down, eager to return. The Lawrence needs some time to mature, but for now offers a kind of brilliant change of pace.

THE LAWRENCE
905 Juniper St., Midtown Atlanta, 404-961-7177

2stars5Food: Experimental gourmet dining
Service: Friendly and very knowledgeable
Best dishes: Crispy pig ears, stuffed poussin, salt and pepper tofu, cocktails
Vegetarian selections: Quite a few vegetarian dishes
Credit cards: All major
Hours: 5-10 p.m. nightly
Children: I’d get a babysitter.
Parking: Self-parking
Reservations: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: No
Noise level: High
Patio: No
Takeout: Yes

ratings_key_febUSE

16 comments Add your comment

Bub

May 17th, 2012
8:35 am

You mean that EEEH-looking thing on their website?

carla roqs

May 17th, 2012
10:52 am

jack trent

May 17th, 2012
11:39 am

tastes like real Vietnamese “rood”?

John Kessler

May 17th, 2012
11:59 am

Rood is rude. Fixed, and thanks.

Jim R

May 17th, 2012
12:18 pm

Sure see ramps listed frequently as an ingredient. Remember searching for them as a kid in the mountains. Are they available locally?

Genia

May 18th, 2012
3:25 pm

This is definitely a 4 star restaurant. You won’t be disappointed.

Steve

May 18th, 2012
4:04 pm

I’ve been reading these AJC food reviews for 13 years now and I should finally go ahead and say that the rating system y’all use kind of disturbs me; nowhere else would you ever see two stars out of five correlating to something that’s actually good. Maybe it’s time you guys revamped it. Think of all the readers out there who are too A.D.D. to read what the ratings mean.

And no, I have no affiliation with this restaurant and didn’t even know of its existence until I read this article.

Steve

May 18th, 2012
4:34 pm

I love to try interesting foods but even I’m not adventurous enough to try duck tongue and rabbit.

Steve

May 18th, 2012
4:58 pm

^ Two different Steves, by the way. I’m the Steve who posted first and I am all about rabbit. Had it at Canoe once and it rocked. Duck tongue, though? Yeah, I’m gonna have to agree with the other Steve on that one.

Minh

May 19th, 2012
2:43 pm

The reason that the salt and pepper tofu tastes like real Vietnamese food is probably because it looks
and tastes like the kind you can buy from VN tofu on Buford Hwy in Chamblee (although the VN tofu
version is not accompanied by chile, cilantro and vinegar, just the tofu itself).

Minh

May 19th, 2012
2:46 pm

Sorry about the mistake in the previous comment. It should read Viet tofu. “VN tofu” is a different place in Norcross and although they sell similar stuff as Viet tofu, it is not as good in my opinion.

Baltisraul

May 20th, 2012
7:17 am

Steve #1…….never had rabbit? Your not from round here are you, boy? Have someone prepare you Brunswick Stew and get back to me. Bet you change your mind.

Baltisraul

May 20th, 2012
8:50 am

How many duck tongues would it take to make a mess? Cows tongue could feed a family of 8. Had it once a month growing up. Brought it home a couple of years ago and my wife threw it in the trash right from the fridge. She said, nobody in S. Carolina ate that stuff. I had my doubts and I didn’t have my tongue!

Baltisraul

May 20th, 2012
9:48 am

Steve @ 4:04pm……You give all us ADD folks out here a bad name. Of course we can read and understand if given the time to do so. I am just now getting to enjoy Nancy and Dagwood in the comic strips. I know I have missed alot, can you catch me up, Steve?

jack trent

May 21st, 2012
12:18 am

isn’t poussin a fish?

carla roqs

May 22nd, 2012
9:26 am

ummmm, where are your reg readers, john?? whewww