Almost two years ago, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s chief dining critic John Kessler wrote an open letter to Atlanta chefs calling upon them to “up [their] game,” noting that “The standards aren’t what they used to be.” He issued a 10-part challenge to the restaurant community to boost the quality of the Atlanta dining scene.
In response, chef Nick Oltarsh, then leading the kitchens of Concentrics’ Lobby Bar and Bistro and Room at Twelve, wrote an open letter to Atlanta diners, highlighting their role in supporting quality restaurants and chefs, thereby enabling them to accept Kessler’s challenge for improvement. He called for Atlantans to be more adventuresome, allowing chefs to express their creativity, and to support restaurants financially by dining out, especially on weeknights.
Now two years later, we find Oltarsh at the helm of One Midtown Kitchen, the 10-year-old Concentrics venture that has been the training ground for some of Atlanta’s finest, including Richard Blais, during its tenure. Having just made the move from Lobby earlier this fall, Oltarsh is still in the process of putting his modern-American-style stamp on One’s menu.
That’s the singular piece of the puzzle hanging in the balance. The restaurant has other key components in place — a warm interior glowing with test tube lighting and (mostly) professional waiters with knowledge of the menu and beverage program.
Kessler presented a mission (quoted below). Oltarsh chose to accept.
“Set high standards, train your cooks well, and if you don’t yet trust them to execute the food as well as you do, don’t leave the kitchen.”
Oltarsh has embraced this challenge, hiring a new sous chef at One and conducting a search for people who “are really into food, ambitious, want to learn and push the envelope.” During each of my three meals here, Oltarsh manned the pass directing the kitchen and inspecting plates.
“Each dish should be a story well told, even if it’s one that has been told many times before.”
Many of the restaurant’s longtime signature dishes remain on the menu, vestiges of the restaurant’s history. One such item includes the griddled goat cheese toast ($9), a thick and toasty wedge of buttery bread stuffed with goat cheese and completed with a velvety porcini mushroom sauce. The steak frites ($21) have also enjoyed a long run on One’s menu. The tender hanger steak with a rich red wine sauce and the slightly over-salted Parmesan-herb fries make it easy to see why. It’s also no mystery why the upscale Kit Kat Bar ($7), an overindulgence of layered chocolate and praline, remains on the menu.
“Dazzle us with your finesse: People go out to restaurants to eat the kinds of dishes they can’t make at home.”
Oltarsh calls Atlanta a “conservative dining town,” yet still devotes about 20 percent of his menu to “more challenging” dishes appropriate for foodies. Enter the wood-roasted bone marrow with toasty bread ($9) or the crispy pork trotters with pickled veggies ($9). Not too many folks are making these items at home (or in Atlanta restaurants).
“Don’t be afraid of sauce.”
One’s menu showcases a collection of sauces: red wine, Madeira, Romesco, brown butter. One of my favorites is the saffron fish sauce accompanying the pan-seared scallops, an umami hit with a subtle touch of saffron. I’m less enthusiastic about the arugula-walnut pesto with the tuna dish ($26). While bright and tasty in its own right, the pesto declares an all-out flavor war with the briny olive relish, pungent pickled garlic and heavy parsnip puree.
In this part of the challenge, Kessler lamented the monotony of the omnipresent butternut squash soup. Rest assured, you won’t find it here. At One, the much maligned cauliflower makes its debut in a hearty soup. Playful additions like chorizo oil, bits of garlicky broccolini and brown butter pine nuts (say no more!) beckon you back for bite after bite.
Oltarsh also surprises us with flavor pops like the unexpected pickled cauliflower with the pan-seared trout ($23) or the sherry vinegar in the Brussels sprouts ($5 side).
“Show us your unique POV… Show me something that you, personally, in your most uncompromising state of mind, want to eat.”
One’s menu offers the obligatory burger ($12) with Gruyere and onion jam, and it still retains the restaurant’s signature dishes. Yet, Oltarsh continues to mold the menu to represent his contemporary American style. His favorite dish on the menu is a nice pink duck breast ($27), served with wheatberry for a pleasantly bouncy texture. While I would prefer crispier skin, all is forgiven after enjoying the duck’s red wine and sour cherry jus.
Two years and another restaurant later, mission completed.ONE MIDTOWN KITCHEN 559 Dutch Valley Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-892-4111. Food: Contemporary American Service: Most are experienced and knowledgeable. Best dishes: Griddled goat cheese toast, cauliflower soup, steak frites, Kit Kat Bar Vegetarian selections: Appetizer salads; few vegetarian options ———————- Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Wednesdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays Children: Not a place I’d take mine, but there were some there. Parking: Valet Reservations: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate to high Patio: No Takeout: Yes