Review: Livingston at the Georgian Terrace
Fantasy and reality at the Georgian Terrace's most beautiful assetMonday May 23, 2011 09:00 am EDT
Ever since it opened two years ago, I've come to know two distinct Livingstons. The first is the Livingston in my head. This Livingston shares a lot in common with the actual Livingston. For one, it's breathtakingly beautiful, the grandest space in the already grand Georgian Terrace Hotel. Its wide stone terrace wraps around that iconic corner of Peachtree Street and Ponce de Leon Avenue, providing cozy nooks and fancy patio chairs to lounge upon; its bar and dining room's marble floors and twinkling lights ooze vintage charm. In the Livingston of my imagination, this is the go-to spot for elegant Atlanta revelry. That bar, with its soaring ceilings and white columns, its curved floor-to-ceiling windows, its plush grey velvet seats, is the place I want to take out-of-town visitors for a delicious cocktail. Livingston is the place I want to recommend to people looking for a special-occasion dinner. But I don't. Because while the Livingston in my imagination is one of Atlanta's most prized assets, the real Livingston still struggles with its identity.
This struggle has been apparent from the outset, when original chef Gary Mennie attempted an ambitious menu and found himself smack up against the hard reality of a hotel restaurant. It appeared that the chef's desire to create a signature Atlanta experience based around local produce was thwarted somewhat by the sheer volume and grueling schedule of a breakfast/lunch/dinner/catering operation. Mennie left to take over operations at Table 1280 in the Woodruff Arts Center (although what's happening over there is somewhat of a mystery, nine months later), and responsibility for Livingston fell to Zeb Stevenson, who had been Mennie's chef de cuisine.
Stevenson, like Mennie, is a hugely talented and nuanced cook. This is most apparent in the more creative entrées on Livingston's menu. A house-smoked duck breast with roasted baby turnips, hazelnuts and kumquat is one of those dishes that brims with treat after treat, from nutty to meaty to caramelized veggie sweetness to psychedelic citrus zing. Lamb chops with spiced sausage and garbanzo beans is slightly more restrained but just as satisfying, the dish's Moroccan undertones punctuated by Meyer lemon and mint. These are dishes that fit neatly into my fantasy.
On Monday evenings, the restaurant has a "Millionaire Mondays" special, offering the choice of a filet or whole lobster and soup or salad for $16. I didn't try the steak although I saw other tables eating it and it looked legit. But the lobster was frankly mind-blowing for the price. It is indeed a whole lobster, tail split and claws removed from their shells, cooked properly and served over some unimportant but tasty accompaniment such as potato purée and mushrooms. This is, without a doubt, the best deal in town.
But Stevenson struggles with other aspects of the menu. Sometimes, the problems are simple matters of taste. I found the idea of a pear, smoked trout and hearts of palm salad intriguing, but it turned out to be drenched in a sweet, mayo-based dressing. The incredibly salty hunks of trout didn't balance as well as they should have with the crisp sticks of pear. The chopped salad, while comprised of a nice array of seasonal veggies, was celery heavy, a tad bland and therefore virtuous tasting. The best salad at the restaurant appeared under a house-made chicken Bratwurst. The sausage was completely outshone by the accompanying greens and radishes dressed in beer-honey vinaigrette.
In other instances, the hotel restaurant encroaches too obviously into the repertoire of the kitchen. One day at lunch I encountered the most gloriously awful burger I've had in years, its form squished into a processed, molded, half-inch-thick hockey puck shape. Its appearance alone conjured its journey from the packing plant to the Cryovac to the freezer to an extended stay on the grill to my plate. The lack of flavor did nothing to dissuade me from this life story. It's a burger my imaginary Livingston — or any half-decent restaurant for that matter — would be ashamed to serve.
There are problems beyond the kitchen as well. That bar? As beautiful as it is, in the real version the drinks are not at all worthy of their surroundings. The namesake cocktail, the Livingston, is a sweet tea sugar bomb served both on the rocks and in a martini glass. The wine list has some decent finds and is genuinely affordable, but the by-the-glass selection needs more variety. Service ranges from professional and crisp to the jokey shtick variety, the kind that's so busy making sure you know their name they forget to put in the sides you ordered.
It wouldn't take much to nudge the real deal into the Livingston of my imagination. The bones are there, the outline of what could be: a talented chef, a breathtaking room, an enviable location. A little nuance, an across-the-board dedication to quality, and a decent cocktail program would push this restaurant to fulfill its destiny.