First Look: Last Word

The Old Fourth Ward newcomer makes a good first impression

Monday January 19, 2015 04:00 am EST

It isn't often — to say the least — that I'm bowled over by a brand-new restaurant. But that's been the case after two visits to six-week-old Last Word. Co-owners Bernard Moussa and Matt Booth have transformed the dingy-hip ambiance of the former tenant, P'cheen, into a stunning runway for high-fashion food and cocktails, all without excessive frills or prices.

Moussa, former co-owner of Woodfire Grill, and Booth, owner of Videodrome, have turned the kitchen over to Matt Palmeree and Eddie Russell, two Athens chefs who have gained enough fame in that city to appear frequently on food TV. Palmeree is especially well-known for his restaurant the Branded Butcher, which focuses on charcuterie, his great passion. Together, Russell and Palmeree operate Coterie and Tie, a supper club there.

Moussa is from Lebanon and he has seen to it that Last Word's menu of mainly small plates features innovative Middle Eastern riffs. This seems to be a significant trend these days with, for another example, Yalla's opening in the Krog Street Market. Considering Americans' wholesale demonization of the Middle East in recent years, the food at Last Word might trigger some understanding that the region is not entirely as the media represents it.

Start your meal with a few of the snacks. The house-made labne — basically thick Greek yogurt — is seasoned lightly with za'atar and served with slices of mild green olives. A sprig of mint makes the occasional bite perfume-y. Scoop the stuff up on super-crispy house-made crackers. You'll need more than the few that come with the dish.

Another snack I couldn't resist was rabbit liver mousse. Its taste is denser than a usual paté's, probably due to the gaminess. You can cut the latter significantly by adding a bit of cubed apple gel or a slice of a fresh apple on the cracker with the mousse. Don't try to eat this alone. You'll fill up quickly.

You definitely want to save room for the shockingly beautiful porchetta di testa. It looks like a free-form mandala. The chef thin-slices pink porchetta, white octopus terrine, and radishes. He adds golden raisins, fried capers, saffron aioli, and arugula sprouts. The principal texture is creamy, including the octopus, with the other ingredients adding sweet, salty and peppery notes. Seriously, do not miss it.

Make a meal, as one friend did, of the exquisite parsnip soup that is topped with a trail of tiny Nigella seeds and incorporates Berbere yogurt. He ordered it with a plate of tagliatelle with mushroom confit, baby kale, and smoked-peanut breadcrumbs. You're probably noticing that much of the food here is creamy, which makes the micro-blasts of flavor all the more unexpected. Who expects to taste Georgia peanuts with mushroom confit?

The restaurant's best entrée-sized plate is probably the shawarma made with lamb belly. Fold it into soft flatbread with roasted tomatoes, cucumber pickles, onions, and cilantro. Anoint it with tahini. It's a burrito that would stop a whirling dervish in his tracks. Braised goat with the chef's harissa, beef tartare, a plate of turnips and radishes, a salad of grapefruit and fennel — all were gorgeously arranged with one flavor bolstering another.

There were two problems during my meals. First is just a matter of taste. The kitchen's house-made sujuk, the classic Armenian sausage, was delicious but a bit dry atop flatbread with radicchio, farmer's cheese, honey, thyme, and apples. Generally, the dish — also emblematic of a trend in town — just didn't adequately reconcile its flavors with one another. I'd rather have substantial slices of the spicy sujuk with the radicchio. Or you could limit the flatbread to a cocktail snack. (I don't drink, so I can't give you much insight to the bar except to say it's garnering raves.)

The second problem was a serious one. We ordered half a chicken with parsley pesto and it arrived literally raw in spots. You would need pliers to pull the flesh off the bones. I ordered it again on my second visit and, while it wasn't as extreme as the first time, it was definitely undercooked again. Perhaps rare chicken has become popular? Yes, I know that chickens raised lovingly in green pastures can be a bit tougher than the broth-injected factory-farmed ones. But the first chicken was beyond the pale.

Finish your meal with roasted dates and figs nestled in the addictive labne, this time flavored with lavender honey and a bit of sea salt. It's poetry to the palate. A pistachio ice cream sandwich is, comparatively, a pleasing limerick. Are you an adult or a kid? OK, order both.

Now for a bit of necessary disclosure. We had a fabulous server, Renee, during our first meal, but the kitchen was in chaos to the extent that our separate entrée dishes arrived as much as 10 minutes apart. Starter dishes were likewise delivered in fits and starts. By the time the chicken arrived raw, we were all pretty upset. Moussa ended up comping our entire meal. It's the first time in my years of food writing that I've accepted such large compensation. I'm pleased that nothing was amiss during my second visit and can assure you that this is a game-changing restaurant in our city.

Editor's note: This article has been updated.

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