Restaurant Review: Polaris
The historic revolving hotel restaurant has a charming vibe, but its menu is all over the place.Wednesday November 19, 2014 04:00 am EST
When my family moved to Atlanta in 1979, we lived in the Hyatt Regency while waiting to move into our house. Some afternoons, my mom would take us up the pill-shaped elevator to the big blue dome atop the downtown hotel to take in the 22-story view of the city that we would call home.
When Polaris reopened in June after closing 10 years earlier, I was once again excited to travel up through the Hyatt's plant-lined atrium to Polaris, the revolving restaurant that crowns the busy convention hotel. But despite any warm, fuzzy childhood memories, my present-day experiences revealed that Polaris is having a hard time getting past typical limitations that often haunt hotel restaurants.
Hotel restaurants aren't inherently bad, but the majority end up middling at best. Perhaps it is because they try too hard, as Polaris does, to cater to a wide variety of tastes and fail to do any one thing very well. Polaris appears to want to break the hotel mold by incorporating local ingredients like H&F Bread Co. sour cherry baguettes, and honey butter made with liquid gold from the onsite beehive chef Martin Pfefferkorn manages along with a rooftop garden. But ultimately, the randomness of a dinner menu that lists anything from sushi rolls to sticky Benton's Bacon popcorn is confusing.
Polaris' look and feel, however, are iconic. Notable local design firm the Johnson Studio transformed the space originally designed by architect John Portman into a retro-modern glam fest with shiny metallic flourishes, polished silver lines that curve around the center of the restaurant, and dark wood credenzas with delicate legs. There is a particularly spectacular wall at the entrance that looks like sharp waves of gold frozen in midair. It feels like a Don Draper bachelor pad that just so happens to have one of the best views in Atlanta. Knickknacks including vintage cameras and books from the era dot the shelves that partition Polaris' seating into distinct sections. The dining room slowly revolves around the kitchen at the heart of the doughnut-shaped restaurant once every 45 minutes. The tiny cooking space — base of operations for Pfefferkorn, chef de cuisine Rodney Ashley, and a handful of cooks — has dark brown features and is outlined in chrome that sparkles when it catches the glow of the setting sun.
Given the size of the kitchen, the menu is understandably smaller than its peers, which would be fine if it didn't feel so dated and all over the place. A Caesar salad, which should be straightforward, arrived on a rectangular frosted glass plate filled with chopped romaine and a soggy Parmesan tuille bowl with fried anchovies. Globs of dressing meant to be decorative came across as overly fussy and frankly, unappetizing. A charcuterie plate cluttered with silky and gorgeous Iberico ham, bits of cheese, salad greens, sweet nuts, crazy-sweet pickled green tomatoes, and bits of sweet peach could use some editing.
The flavors in some dishes here are too intense and should be pared back. I love Korean fried chicken, but Polaris' Korean picnic drumsticks were so over-seasoned with gochujang that they saturated my taste buds almost instantly. I could eat only two before feeling like I'd overindulged. On the other hand, more composed dishes such as the smallish portion of steak Oscar covered with Dungeness crab and béarnaise sauce lacks any real depth. The meat was cooked perfectly to medium rare, but there was a metallic quality to the crab and the accompanying potatoes tasted like they'd had been kept in a steam tray for hours. The dish felt very hotel banquet. I enjoyed the Spotted Trotter rabbit crépinette, basically a fancy hamburger patty seasoned with Madeira and figs, and wrapped in caul fat to keep them moist. The crépinettes were served on top of al dente puy lentils with asparagus spears peeking out from the mound of legumes and a few carrots parisienne. It was the most cleanly executed dish we tried. Overall, Polaris' menu would benefit from more simple, straightforward dishes to highlight the local ingredients it is trying to showcase. If local is going to be a mission, don't cover it up with flash in an effort to be fancy.
Many of the desserts tasted like they were made days in advance and then refrigerated. The one dish we had that didn't taste old was a peanut butter tart with an almost effervescent brittle made with hotel honey.
The wine list has no vintages, but it is long enough to accommodate a novice drinker or a seasoned wine pro. Cocktails hold promise, though some of the combinations border on the bizarre. There is a Polaris Peach daiquiri, which was popular back in the restaurant's heyday, but the toasted marshmallows paired with bacon-infused bourbon in the Camper's Hootch cocktail, or almond cookies with saffron syrup in the Oneiroi are too sweet and unappealing. The sour cherry fizz mocktail was so cloying I couldn't make it past two sips. Instead, go for the Oak + Ginger for two, a $22 mix of 1792 Bourbon peach essence, island bitters, lime, and Fever Tree ginger beer served in a glass bottle with a handwritten label. It tastes like Atlanta in a glass: peachy sweet with some spice from the ginger and just the slightest hint of bitter to give it some edge.
Every once in a while, the spinning top catches ever so slightly, disrupting an otherwise smooth 45-minute revolution. The service at Polaris comes with a few hiccups, too. One evening, it took three people to identify the one "local cheese" on the charcuterie plate. Our bewildered server failed to take our empty plates away even though we had been served our second course. Luckily, another server from a different section noticed our crowded table and made some room. Another night, service was proficient and seamless, the kind that makes you feel relaxed and taken care of rather than having to ask multiple times for a water refill.
Despite the drawbacks, I'd be happy sitting at Polaris' black and white bar set in front of the revolving backdrop, sipping a barrel-aged Manhattan and curbing my hunger with some of that bacon popcorn or an acceptable spicy crab sushi roll. For now though, just as my visits upstairs as a child were a prelude to my life in Atlanta, a visit to Polaris today is best when treated just as that: a prelude to your evening out rather than a final destination.