Review: Cibo e Beve

Inventive Italian comes to Sandy Springs

Cibo E Beve has been a long time coming for chef Linda Harrell. For the past four years, Harrell has been working as the culinary director for Meehan's Public House, but in many ways that was just a placeholder of a job for her. Italian food is her passion, and the Meehan's position was a way of keeping Harrell on board while owner 101 Concepts found a location for her Italian aspirations.

Harrell came to Atlanta about a decade ago from Baltimore, Md., to work as the opening chef de cuisine at Antica Posta in Buckhead. 101 Concepts then hired her to be the chef at Mangia 101 in Brookhaven, which was open for about three years. Since its closing, Harrell has been managing the menu at Meehan's. Finally, 101 Concepts has found another outlet for the chef's desire to cook Italian.

That outlet is Cibo E Beve on Roswell Road just north of Buckhead. The restaurant is designed by ai3, the hotshot design team of the moment (Bocado, Miller Union, HD1), and the huge zinc bar and warm brown booths cast an upscale caramel glow on everything. Cibo E Beve is not a large restaurant, and its intimacy is one of its strengths. The neighborhood has quickly latched on to the spot — make a reservation and don't expect your table to be ready early.

The menu follows the trendy Italian format of the day — small plates, meats and cheeses, wood oven-cooked pizzas, pastas and mains. Servers won't burden you with effusive explanations of the menu, and service in general is friendly and helpful without being overbearing.

The menu changed focus this past weekend, switching from late summer to fall/winter, and the change is welcome. The original menu seemed to obfuscate proteins rather than elevate them. A hamachi crudo appetizer was buried under a flurry of lemon, capers, parsley, tomatoes and shallot, the capers masking the delicate hamachi and giving it an artificially fishy flavor. Butter poached scallops were presented seared rather than poached (perhaps they were poached then seared, but the sear concealed any remnant of poaching's hallmark delicacy, and they had an underdone appearance and texture) and served with a white chocolate velouté that was as overwrought and needlessly sweet as it sounds.

I found more to love on the new fall menu, including an espresso-dusted elk that came over chestnut sformatino, an eggy Italian soufflé-type dish. This tasted more like chestnuts whipped with potatoes, but was nutty and delicious nonetheless. I had been longing for elk and venison, and this tender, meaty, just-the-right-amount-of-gaminess dish rewarded that desire generously. I also enjoyed a spicy, eggplant-heavy penne, although there was a strong green pepper tang throughout (the menu promised purple peppers; all I saw was green). A quail breast appetizer served with Gorgonzola polenta cake, apple sage purée and white balsamic gastrique was tasty but too gussied up. In general, many of Cibo e Beve's dishes would shine brighter with fewer adornments and a touch more focus. But these dishes show Harrell's potential, elevating Italian food with her sophisticated vision.

Pizzas have a good crackly underside, and dough that provides pull and chew in all the right amounts. A soppresate piccante version was overwhelmingly salty, but the regular margherita added to the now widespread trend of quality pizzas available all over town.

As is also the trend citywide, there's a focus on cocktails here, and the list is long and verbose. Originally it was somewhat difficult to figure out what ingredients were in each drink, the descriptions being mainly paragraph-long history lessons about each beverage. The new incarnation of the menu puts the ingredients in bold, which makes choosing a drink far less frustrating. I've had mixed success with my choices. I had a truly strange Sazerac one night with a large ice cube, an overwhelming taste of absinthe, and a completely undissolved sugar cube at the bottom. Some of my favorite original cocktails from the earlier menu are now gone, and what's left leans more toward the classics. But order a Herbie Dale and get the best of brown liquor and refreshing mint and lemon. The Redemption is all that's good about bitter Italian vermouth, but the Scofflaw is off somehow, its lemon and pomegranate clashing with its Old Overholt base.

I want Cibo E Beve to be just a smidge better than it is, both the Cibo (food) and Beve (drink). The cocktails are ambitious, but the drinks don't live up to the list's aspirations. And while the new fall menu shows improvement over the opening offerings, the food is uneven. I long for less components on most plates, more love and simplicity. It seems as though these dishes have been over-thought. Which is perhaps what happens when a chef spends four years thinking about a restaurant before it comes into existence. I hope Cibo E Beve mellows over time and becomes a tad less fussy, a pinch simpler. Because under all the pizzas and cocktails and fancy platings lie the hopes and dreams of one talented chef.

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