Brookhaven's new American bistro proves that quality conquers allMonday March 14, 2011 09:00 am EDT
At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, the bar at Kaleidoscope is jammed with people. The bar sits alongside the dining room's long, almost hangar-like space, and the swarm of people radiates out through the room and pools in the corner opposite the front door. This is the young and upwardly mobile Brookhaven set, as well as a few older lawyers getting sloshed, some Botox lovelies, handsome divorcé singles, and one older gentleman sitting with his iPad propped up at the bar, playing Angry Birds. Maneuvering through all the revelers is Joey Riley, chef and owner of this three-month-old neighborhood joint.
The ultimate career chef, Riley carries himself like a retired fighter, his center of gravity low, his shoulders rounded. Riley, who worked as executive chef at the Buckhead Diner for the past six years, is used to the crowds, the trend-seekers, the schmooze-fest that patronize Buckhead Life's popular American restaurant. He's used to it, but at Kaleidoscope, it's his. Kaleidescope's instant popularity must be thrilling, and you can see in Riley's eyes a kind of wary excitement. He stops by the bar to ask a couple of girls how the food is. "It's great!!" a blonde with a burger responds. Riley moves on, through the hubbub of the packed dining room, back to his station in front of the bright kitchen.
Kaleidoscope anchors the corner of the new-ish Village Walk development on Brookhaven's Dresden Drive. The menu and room cater to many needs. It's a casual date place, there's a kid's menu, there's bar food, Asian food, burgers, steaks and straight comfort classics. This type of sports bar-meets-family restaurant has long been the calling card of the worst type of American dining — badly done Asian influences, lazy cooking with no nuance. The all-pleasing American bistro has been poorly executed so often, it's hard to have any faith in the genre. But Riley takes the populist form and turns it on its head by simply doing this type of food — he calls it "international comfort food" — very, very well.
When a menu offers chicken wings, pot stickers, sizzling whole catfish and Yankee pot roast, my alarm bells go off. But at Kaleidoscope, those chicken wings are wickedly spicy, and the pot stickers burst with ginger and scallion-imbued pork beneath a tender, delicate wrapper.
The sizzling catfish flakes off the bone in supple chunks, while a sweet black bean sauce and pickled ginger work in tandem to provide intrigue and punch. And the Yankee pot roast, made with short ribs, is rich and swarthy, the meat pulling away in tender hunks, the sauce deep with flavor. Riley's version is a shining example of this overdone — and often badly done — dish.
Arctic char arrives with crispy skin and supple flesh over a vinegary jumble of artichokes, feta, cucumber and tomato. The dish essentially is a pared down Greek salad with a nice piece of fish on top, and as such is one of the most satisfying light meals I've had in months.
Kaleidescope's burger is a pleasurable jumble of mush; pimento cheese, chow-chow, slaw and pickles top a patty that tastes backyard grilled. But it's not the only meat-on-bun fun to be had. The Chinese pork belly steamed buns give as much game: a fatty-hoisin-pickle tangle on soft bun comfort. Riley spent years as the chef at Nan in Midtown, and has traveled extensively in Asia. His affinity for the cuisine is lovingly apparent on the plate.
Even dessert surprises — everything on the menu sounds and looks kind of like it came from an Applebee's, but tastes the opposite. A s'mores-inspired confection layers a log of brownie with a topping of singed, melty marshmallow goo. The brownie is the highest quality, fudgy and bittersweet, making for a hard-to-stop-eating return to childhood.
There were a couple of instances where Riley went overboard with the salt — on an otherwise lovely hamachi crudo, and with a huge hunk of pork porterhouse over Brussels sprouts, fingerlings and pancetta. But mostly the seasoning, like everything else, was spot on. The wine list has something for everyone — New World, Old World, affordable and fancy. There are interesting beers, too, and a staff that knows them well.
So three cheers for the malleable, usable, all-pleasing American bistro. It turns out it's not a genre that's bad at its core. It just takes the right chef, the right neighborhood and the right staff to make it work — and in this case, shine.