“Expletive! If that stupid expletiver can’t expletiving bother to pick up that expletiving order then, well, expletive him!”
So says a red-faced man to his friend as they sit across a narrow table from me — a piece of furniture on which he sometimes bangs his fist for emphasis.
Next to me, a woman receives a dish covered with melted, bubbly, robustly funky cheese — the kind of cheese that smells like a dark and dirty place. It’s something I might appreciate later in the meal but, good Lord, I need a drink first.
I’m at the “bar” at Seven Lamps, except it’s not really a bar in the common sense of a counter behind which shakers shake and in front of which tipplers tipple. It is, rather, this long, high table that fronts a showcase cocktail staging area where mixologist Arianne Fielder assembles her potent concoctions. It’s a tight space, and so we sit cheek to jowl, the lady with the stinky cheese, the angry business guys draining the dregs of their brown drinks and me, wishing I could just disappear into my iPhone.
It lights up with a text. My friend is running late. Great.
Seven Lamps, the new restaurant in the Shops Around Lenox in Buckhead, has followed the lead set by STG Trattoria, the Spence and other edgy new restaurants around the country in banishing its bar. Without a counter obscuring it, the bartender’s domain begins to look like an apothecary shop — all shiny bottles and beakers, shrubs and tinctures — and plays up to the romance of today’s cocktail culture. Table seating encourages a sense of community. We drinkers are no longer the spiritual brethren of lonely businessmen at the airport Hilton bar, but hungry travelers gathering around for a shared experience.
Or so the theory goes.
Atlantans are not people who weave through crowded sidewalks or jostle each other on subways, so we’re not quite sure how to act at community tables. We don’t really grok the fine art of keeping our collective inside voices, respecting boundaries and yet eavesdropping just enough so that our mutual coexistence becomes a source of pleasure.
But we’re learning, and Seven Lamps might be a good place to start. While the evening started out like some new circle of dining hell, it improved dramatically thanks to Fielder’s inspired handiwork. She has that rare gift for cocktails that refresh through strangeness. She confounds and delights your tongue with unexpected flavors. The Snow White brings her take on the classic Bee’s Knees. She starts with a mixture of gin, lemon and honey, but then adds apple schnapps and a healthy glug of white ale. It is harmonious but weird, and lethal enough to knock a princess flat on her back. The Goin Back to Cali brings a whacked-out diva of a margarita — a tequila drink in a salt-crusted champagne flute that gets its effervescence from Sweetwater IPA. This bartender has a fresh, exciting voice.
Soon the angry businessmen have left. We have better neighbors and an iced tray of Watch House oysters from Virginia. The bar is crowded with people who buzz rather than shriek. We order more food, including a novel, delicious take on the lobster roll — here served in a gooey, springy steamed brioche bun, its texture cannily matching that of the lobster.
Chef-owner Drew Van Leuvan has cooked around Atlanta for more than a decade, recently at One Midtown Kitchen and years ago at a little Midtown cafe called Toast, where many got a first taste of his fine homemade pasta.
When asked to describe his intention for Seven Lamps, he said, “It’s a bar, but it’s not a bar.” That makes sense, as the industrial, wedge-shaped room really does feel like a modern tavern. The plain wooden tables are set in cafeteria-style rows, shelves of bottles line the walls and, well, the menu appears to be dedicated to serving the kind of food that appeals when you’re drunk. Lots of cheese. Lots of rich, gooey things. Lots of dishes that read like a dare.
Example: pistachio macarons filled with mortadella mousse. We’re talking about sweet, creamy, bologna-filled cookies. If Oscar Meyer and Pierre Hermé were to join forces and develop a product for the citizens of Colorado or Washington state to enjoy after engaging in a perfectly legal activity, then this is what they would come up with. To me, the first bite seemed so wrong but perhaps kind of right. The second bite was just plain wrong.
I do admire Van Leuvan’s estimable culinary technique. He not only made the macarons, he made the mortadella. But I don’t always agree with his prodigious sweet tooth.
“I’m a pastry chef at heart, but I like to work in both sweet and savory dishes,” he said. He added, though, “I have been called out on this before. I love sweet, and I love acid. What I like to make is comfort food without parameters.”
His mostly small-plates menu features really terrific tortellini filled with cheese and chestnut, tossed in brown butter then festooned with apple leather and vanilla cookie crumbs. Pillowy potato gnocchi, as tender as any in the city, share a bowl with pear and gingerbread. Even the cheeseboard comes with pecan biscotti rather than bread, and the simple green salad features a notably sweet honey vinaigrette.
Van Leuvan also prepares some killer rich dishes that might strike your fancy if you’re hankering for excess. At lunch he makes a crispy cheese sandwich that starts with brioche (i.e., bread that is one-third butter by weight) and saturates it with fat to fry to a perfect crisp. It gushes molten cheese, and there’s even an egg along for the ride. It’s a doozie.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying I personally could not warm up to Seven Lamps as a restaurant, even though I welcomed the edge and experimentation on the menu.
But once I realized it was a bar, albeit it one without a bar, everything kind of clicked into place. You go for a drink, have one too many, and then the bologna cookies proffer kink.
Meanwhile, I just got a call from Brian Lewis, the owner of STG Trattoria, the Buckhead restaurant that helped introduce Atlanta to this trendy new barless bar look. He wanted me to know he was adding seating.
“Oh, like a communal table?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s going to be more of a bar. You know, a real bar.”
Ah, wonderful, I’ll be right over. Make it a double.
Seven Lamps: 3400 Around Lenox Road, Atlanta. 404-467-8950, sevenlampsatl.com