Review: Noon Midtown

Sous chef Sean Telo brings modern ambition to the neighborhood sandwich shop

The story of Noon is one of evolution. On the surface it's a story about the evolution of two chefs, one sandwich shop, and one neighborhood. But look a little deeper and you'll see that it may turn into a story about the evolution of the Atlanta dining scene.

It began with chef and owner Katie Birmingham, who worked with Guenter Seeger for seven years and spent three years at Bacchanalia before becoming an attorney. Frustrated with Midtown's lunch options and inspired by a honeymoon in Italy, Birmingham opened Noon in the spring of 2009, serving breakfast and lunch.

The space, designed in collaboration by Birmingham's husband Ross Davis and design firm Ai3, is sleekly white and airy. Touches of wood compliment splashes of color, the least pleasant of which are two large flat screen TVs over the bar that overwhelm the otherwise intimate room. Still, the modern cosmopolitanism works, creating a vision of how Midtown could be, should be, is in this one tiny storefront.

A year after opening, the lunch menu remains much the same; Birmingham presents high-flavor, low-fuss options such as a meatloaf sandwich with sharp Tillamook cheddar, and eggplant panino, the eggplant pressed into crunchy bread with lush goat cheese and zippy sundried tomato pesto.

But the breakfast menu has been abandoned, and Noon is now open for dinner. The dinner menu has taken a fairly large step away from lunch's simple aesthetic, presenting food that is downright modern. After a little snooping, I found that this welcome deviation comes thanks to sous chef Sean Telo, who, with Birmingham's approval, is responsible for the direction and execution of the "after Noon" offerings. Post-Noon, if you will.

So, where at lunch you get grilled cheese of the day, in the evening your dish of lamb may come with a side of rosemary vapor, a bowl of sputtering rosemary-scented smoke, created with dry ice. Telo has worked extensively with Richard Blais (which explains why that rosemary fog may sound familiar to readers of another CL column), and the molecular influence is obvious, as is this young chef's palpable ambition. Did I mention that he's 22?

Telo's ambition results in some heart-achingly gorgeous dishes, such as a beet salad scattered across a stark white plate, the red and golden beets nestled in a deep red beet puree and accompanied by gorgonzola, candied walnuts, and crispy slivers of beet chips. I would hang a painting of this dish in my house it's so beautiful, and it tastes as good as it looks.

"Green + Egg + Ham" presents a breaded and fried whole egg over a puddle of asparagus puree, dotted with bits of Benton's country ham. Cut open the egg, golden yolk oozes out; sweep a bite through the asparagus and get a mouthful of crispy, rich, vegetal flavor, punctuated with smoky ham. This is food with beauty and attitude, but also a sense of humor.

Potato and Manchego croquettes also provide balls of fried yum, this time starchy, cheesy yum. The star of the plate though is the romesco sauce - roasted pepper flavor bursts through the croquettes' richness and leaves you wanting more.

But as often happens with chefs who are so wrapped up in the fun and games of cooking, basic technique falls slightly by the wayside. That lamb's rosemary vapor sure is theatrical, but I'd rather have the lamb cooked properly, rather than the barely warm, basically raw presentation I received. An under-seared steak came with blue cheese ice cream that would have been less impressive, but more appealing, if it had been butter. The accompanying creamed corn was sweet and flavorful, but obviously held together with some kind of bag-o-tricks substance other than cream. The result made for a kind of "uncanny valley" effect, whereby the corn looks a lot like food, but also a lot like a deviant substance, tacky and unnatural in its congealed scatter.

Likewise, the "chocolate textures" dessert presented a plate with a bunch of powders, glop and spheres, none of which were particularly tasty. Clever, yes. Pleasurable? Not so much.

Despite his love for the magic wand of modernism, Telo is at his best when he tends toward the more straightforward. Trout over lady peas with pork belly presents beautifully cooked fish: crispy skin over tender flesh tasting of fresh running water. House-made fettuccini is a tiny bit gummy, but tossed with strips of shaved asparagus and dotted with fresh ricotta, the pasta was like a warm summer garden in a bowl.

The wine list could have come right off the shelves of Kroger, but thankfully there's a talented mixologist to fill the booze void. Reggie Weekes has a menu of inventive and inventively named cocktails that sometimes veer toward too sweet but often hit exactly the right spot, especially on these summer evenings.

All of this combined - the modern space, the central location, the playful and inventive spirit at the bar and in the kitchen - make for an endearing and exciting culinary playground vibe. Telo still has some learning to do, but I have no doubt his execution will soon match his inventiveness and ambition. Keep an eye on this chef - he may well be the next great talent in the evolution of Atlanta dining.

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