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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Food: 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.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: High