The Inman Park stalwart is still defining Atlanta's cuisineMonday June 28, 2010 09:00 am EDT
Atlanta's dining scene reminds me of an Australian kid's book called The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek, in which a beast comes to life from the bottom of a creek, and then spends his days wandering the land, asking passing animals, "What am I?" Finally, he encounters a human scientist, who informs him that because he appears to be a bunyip, and bunyips are imaginary, that he simply doesn't exist.
"What am I?" Atlanta asks. Kevin Rathbun is a large part of the answer.
More than any other chef, Rathbun is responsible for steering and defining the restaurant food of Atlanta. First as executive chef for Buckhead Life restaurants, and now with his own family of Inman Park establishments, the influence of Rathbun's culinary audacity can be seen across the city. The flavor-saturated, brashly American, and unapologetically manly style Rathbun became known for at Nava and Buckhead Diner permeates our dining scene. Chefs who worked under him spread his influence, along with restaurateurs who admired his ability to draw crowds. Visiting Rathbun's these days is like getting an education in Atlanta's gastronomic origins. Practically every culinary trend and compulsion is represented here and, for the most part, Rathbun does it bigger, better and bolder.
Starting with the space. Walking into Rathbun's, it's easy to see why this restaurant inspired a wave of eateries within industrial spaces. The soaring ceilings and huge light fixtures create a grand theatrical effect, making you feel as though you've arrived at the center of the action.
And it is still the center of the action. Now six years old, the restaurant swells with customers most evenings. They come for the feel and the name, but they also come for the food.
They come for the steak; a colossal 20-ounce bone-in rib-eye, slathered in warm blue cheese vinaigrette — a messy, fatty, bloody good time. And at the other end of the spectrum, a tiny Jonah crab tart, all warm, gushing custardy richness and flaky crust surrounding a generous pile of hot crab meat, its garnish a few small slices of Serrano chile, the burst of heat lending the dish enduring intrigue.
Rathbun's menu is ludicrously large — the website boasts that, including specials, the kitchen offers more than 50 dishes most nights. What's lacking in focus is made up for in sheer choice: Rathbun is a pleaser, and god forbid someone should have a hankering for curry or tacos or oysters or lobster without that very thing being provided.
The enormity allowed for a few stellar meals, without encountering the mediocrity that does exist in the corners of the menu. Choose wisely and you'll be rewarded. Rathbun serves the most straightforward and the best bone marrow appetizer in town: three fat bones with grilled bread and Maldon salt for sprinkling. His chicken livers a la plancha are tender and simple, served in a lemony balsamic sauce that balances the liver's earthy musk. A recent special of mackerel showed the fish's meaty potential; a huge hunk of it sat under a sauce that tasted like the best veggie cream cheese you've ever had. Mackerel's oily, fishy nature was completely mitigated, revealing more crispy-skinned, delicate-fleshed subtlety than I've ever encountered.
It took a real effort to find the places where Rathbun's falters, and I did it by forcing myself to order the things I normally wouldn't, but many customers would. Fried calamari from a menu that offers delicate flounder sashimi in ponzu sauce? I'll pass. The calamari here, with a standard sweet chili sauce, is snooze-worthy. Chicken tenders and tofu with red curry tastes like fried salt with spicy salt sauce (Rathbun has a reputation for loving the salt, a compulsion I noticed elsewhere but not nearly to this extent).
For a restaurant of this caliber, the wine list could be a touch more nuanced. The Rathbun tendency to give the people what they want results in a ton of chardonnay and cabernet, and only a few bottles for the explorers among us. And in today's boozy landscape, the cocktail program needs work. A recent sweet corn and saffron Mojito special was barely a Mojito at all, lacking lime and so sweet as to be undrinkable. Mixes are the norm, as opposed to fresh juices. There's creativity and passion behind this bar, but I sensed the lack of one strong vision to set tastes and standards.
Which is the exact opposite of the feel you get from the rest of this enterprise. Rathbun can be seen almost every night, chatting to customers at the bar and checking in with the kitchen. Co-owner and general manager Cliff Bramble is often at the host stand or overseeing the friendly, professional floor staff. And at its best, this is still a restaurant that we should be proud to define ourselves by.