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Atlanta revisited: Aria restaurant review, Buckhead

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As the waiter slid dessert menus in front of us, the young couple at the next table came alive. The woman leaned deep into our space gushing, “You have GOT to get the cheesecake. It’s warm. It’s goat cheese. It’s warm. Ohmygosh. Get the cheesecake.”

After we issued a polite word of thanks and turned back to our serious dessert deliberations, our table neighbor commanded our attention once more with renewed vigor and another rush of cheesecake fervor. And, possibly because we had yet to acquiesce, her husband took up the cause, beseeching us to order the ode to chevre.Jenny-Turknett-Review

At Aria, which opened in 2000, cheesecake has long been a staple. If you’re an Aria loyalist, you may recall the popular warm chocolate cheesecake that occupied a spot on the menu for an extended period.

Herein you find Aria’s modus operandi. Chef-owner Gerry Klaskala has created a comfortable menu framework that shifts slightly with seasonal availability. Your waiter may present it with a flourish, explaining that the ever changing menu is printed daily, but be assured that your favorites remain in one form or another.

Using this strategy, the Culinary Institute of America graduate rarely strays from Aria’s formula for success, nor does he disappoint diners who have developed attachments to specific dishes. This constancy, coupled with Aria’s consistently high level of execution, makes for a dining experience with few surprises.

Klaskala, who was the opening chef for Buckhead Diner and consultant for Horseradish Grill, is known for slow-cooked meats like the Painted Hills Ranch short rib ($29). Well executed, this classic dish contains all the tried-and-true beefy-veg notes to satisfy the meat-and-potatoes contingent.

The braised Niman Ranch Berkshire pork shoulder ($26) tops the list of don’t-you-dare-get-rid-of-that dishes. I get it — a comfort food fest. Who can resist tender shreds of pork glazed with a sweet, bacony onion marmalade?

Pork shoulder with pimento cheese risotto (All photos by Becky Stein)

Pork shoulder with pimento cheese risotto (All photos by Becky Stein)

Protein accompaniments are most subject to change, often doing so in tandem with seasonal produce. For now, the pork shoulder comes with a screamingly fluorescent orange deconstructed-pimento-cheese risotto. The tangy risotto, made with Black Diamond cheddar and topped with blistered sweet red peppers, gets all juicy mixed with the lovely pork-marmalade drippings.

Risotto is one of Aria’s consistent menu components. It appears again paired with three crusty seared New Bedford jumbo scallops ($29). This firmer, less creamy version comes with a crackery thin strip of bacon adornment set at an artful angle.

Like the risotto, you’ll usually find some incarnation of a homemade pasta dish. The potato gnocchi ($13) currently play that role. Although bland and wanting on their own, you can put the gnocchi to good use sopping up the rich potpourri of chanterelle and oyster mushrooms, brown butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

One recipe that won’t soon shift is the ever-popular creamless celery root soup ($9), historically one of the restaurant’s most requested. The deceptively creamy soup features just a handful of ingredients, including leeks, light chicken stock, celery root, truffles and Parmigiano Reggiano. According to Klaskala, the secret to the soup’s depth and slight tanginess comes the from slow cooking of the leeks.

Hazelnut trout

Hazelnut trout

Aria also has enjoyed success with the hazelnut trout ($26). Think fragrant and toasty hazelnuts, fresh mountain trout and a vibrant schmear of blood orange and carrot puree, somehow simultaneously bright and earthy. Both the puree and the briny-sweet raisin-caper topping for the fillet of lemon sole ($29) wake my palate with a welcome spark of creativity.

Maybe we’re meant to be surprised and indulged by Andres Lozaia’s wine list, which will help you expand your horizons beyond California Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to wines by the glass, choices include an array of New and Old World half-bottle options, a great way to sample unfamiliar varietals. Play along. In addition to waiters well-versed with the wine list, Aria employs three sommeliers to assist you with selection and food pairings.

Surprise and a glimmer of creativity also may come in the form of dessert — but not from our table neighbors’ dreamy cheesecake. Yes, it was warm. It was goat cheese. It was cheesecake. All true. And tasty enough, for sure. But it wasn’t what made pastry chef Kathryn King my new heroine.

If you were my table neighbor, I’d implore you, as I do now, to order the tasting of sorbets served with a meringue crisp ($8). Boring, right? So, so wrong. Each quenelle, artfully stacked in a Lincoln-Log-style tower, brings a concentrated flavor explosion. I started with the passion fruit, which was my favorite until I tried the lemon, which was my favorite until I got to the tangerine, which was my favorite until I got to the grapefruit. … Get the picture?

Tower of sorbet

Tower of sorbet

Our table also ordered the Valrhona chocolate cream pie ($9), which I tried out of obligation, mentally calculating how much of the sorbet would be eaten by my table mates while I switched gears. And yet, I was as impossibly ensnared by the decadent wedge of ganache-like chocolate as I was by the sorbet.

After 12-plus years, Aria has its formula down to a science, altering the menu to reflect the seasons and walking a delicate line to appease loyal customers with favorite dishes.

Yet, even with consistent and well-executed food, a wine list begging for exploration, and service that leaves you feeling pampered, I wish for a little more. More risks? More playfulness? More that I know Gerry Klaskala can give.

ARIA
490 E. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta. 404-233-7673
3stars5Food: modern American
Service: professional, high level, well-versed on wine list
Best dishes: pork shoulder, sorbets, chocolate cream pie
Vegetarian selections: salads
Price range: $$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 6-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays
Children: better get a babysitter
Parking: valet
Reservations: yes
Wheelchair access: yes
Smoking: no
Noise level: moderate
Patio: yes
Takeout: yes
ratings_key_febUSE

20 comments Add your comment

Baltisraul.....

February 28th, 2013
8:14 am

Jen…..you paint a great picture.

Art

February 28th, 2013
8:27 am

And Becky Stein takes some amazing pictures!! Great job!!

[...] Atlanta revisited: Aria restaurant review, Buckhead [...]

Edward

February 28th, 2013
10:16 am

Excellent review. How did you manage to refrain from throttling the rude table neighbors, though?

Steven

February 28th, 2013
10:20 am

so to sum it up Jenny they are playing it safe. Some of the meat dishes are heavy handed.

Jenny Turknett

February 28th, 2013
10:22 am

Thanks, guys. And, yes — kudos to Becky Stein! Edward, they were so earnest it was almost cute.

Greg

February 28th, 2013
12:25 pm

So you had up until the last paragraph and the rating. My gosh, what does Aria have to do to rate four stars instead of just three?

James

February 28th, 2013
12:43 pm

@Greg – take risks, push the envelope, etc. Three stars is probably the ceiling for places that play it safe (which is not necessarily bad business strategy – taking risks is risky, after all…)

Whoa Nelly

February 28th, 2013
3:22 pm

You are underqualified to rate Aria.

It is consistently the best wine list and menu in Atlanta.

Stick to your OTP hinterland kitsch, and review what you know. Aria is out of your league.

Art

February 28th, 2013
6:06 pm

@Whoa Nelly, gesundheit meine Fraulein! You’ve obviously got your lederhosen cinched a little too tight in the nether region. Your condescending comments are out of the league of this blog. We may disagree from time to time but we do it with class and respect for each other. I would suggest you take your holier than thou attitude and stick it where the sun don’t shine… sweetie pie!

James

March 1st, 2013
10:10 am

Susan – I’ve never seen an awful restaurant given 3 stars. I think you’re either confused or have mistaken this for the wrong site.

berry steve

March 1st, 2013
10:44 am

Whoa Nelly…and you are out of your element here. Go back to yellig at your kids. This is for adults only!

PJ

March 1st, 2013
1:10 pm

The only flaw I see in Aria is the bar area. The beady curtain thing does not make sense. We waited a good 15 minutes for our reservation at the table nearest the host stand & the curtain – it just doesn’t belong in this place. It is loud, it is clunky and it definitely does nothing to keep the chill from door opening and closing from coming into the lounge. It is in such stark contrast to the dining experience that I forgot about it once I was seated only to be painfully reminded of it when I left. Not the first & last impression to leave guests with at such an otherwise outstanding establishment.

Annoying thing out of the way, I recently enjoyed Aria in an entirely new way to me – girls night out. Aria screams date night and that is all I’ve ever done there before. I will highly recommend gathering some of your nearest & dearest – those who will let you sip from their drinks & share from their plates – and head to Aria for an excellent dinner. My friends and I sampled many of the dishes Jenny mentions in her review. I was so surprised by the celery root soup that I almost stole it all from my friend. The slaw that comes the crab cakes is so good it almost upstages them. I am not a fish person, but another friend ordered the sole and it was divine. The salty capers played off the lemony fish and whatever else was on and around it to perfection. If someone wasn’t watching, I may have licked my plate clean of the pimento cheese risotto that came with my pork shoulder.

We also steered away from the cheesecake, recommended by our waiter (it really must be good!), and went for the sorbets & chocolate cream pie. I am usually a chocolate girl and I was the one who pushed for the pie, but I was also the one pushing it aside to get more of the sorbets.

Jerry

March 1st, 2013
6:44 pm

So many places “pushing the envelope” are hit and miss, so many avantgarde places for the sake of being one flop (Blaise anyone?). Give me a superbly executed dinner from A to Z anytime. That’s more difficult to accomplish than trying for trendiness. It shows maturity and profesional know-how very few ever achieve. Kudos to Klaskala, four stars for sure.

James

March 1st, 2013
11:24 pm

@Jerry – you’re exactly right, it’s definitely harder to push the envelope, take risks, and be successful. However, if you can succeed with a higher degree of difficulty then that usually translates to more points from the judges ;)

Blackland

March 3rd, 2013
5:56 pm

For Atlanta I would give Aria 4 stars. I have dined here around 12 times and never had a bad meal, bad service or bad wine. The food is fresh, consistant and well executed; if you dine out a lot in this town you will be hard-pressed to find a better meal. Risk taking is over-rated, I want a good dinner and dining experience for my money when I am spending $400 to $500.

wino

March 3rd, 2013
10:02 pm

I am not going to fight the fact that Gerry doesn’t push the envelope. All I say, as a person who has to entertain high end clients often, I will take my chances with Aria over most any restaurant in Atlanta.

Kevin

March 4th, 2013
8:11 am

Aria is a safe expense account meal when clients want to eat in Buckhead.
I find the room noisy, the service professional but not engaging and the food very safe and predictable. There is nothing that stands out as memorable and nothing that disappoints. In my opinion, Aria no longer justifies a position in my tier of top restuarants in Atlanta; there is much better value from chefs that are willing to take the experience higher and not settle for safe.

foodphotog

March 5th, 2013
12:58 pm

thank you @Art and @ Jenny.:) it helps when Chef has great presentation!!!