First Look: Bar Margot
The new Four Seasons' restaurant and lounge is not your average hotel dining establishmentMonday November 30, 2015 04:00 am EST
It seems like there's an invisible fence that exists inside Atlanta hotel lobbies — one that keeps the locals out of their restaurants. Atlantans don't mind valet parking, but as soon as we have to walk across a lobby, it's as if our collective steps grow slow and we begin to question if a hotel joint is really worth supporting. It's not like they haven't tried to woo us with big-name celebrity chefs or well-known national franchises or even super-local sourcing, but little seems to stick. Even respected and long-tenured chefs like Robert Gerstenecker at the Four Seasons have had a hard time overcoming that invisible fence. Which is why it's no surprise that his hotel would turn to the one trick that draws locals like mad: the Ford Fry stamp of approval.
Bar Margot is the new lunch and dinner restaurant inside the Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta in Midtown, replacing the more formal Park 75. It launched in late September with a press release shouting "Ford Fry Debuts Bar Margot" (Gerstenecker is still running the kitchen). To amplify the impact, the Four Seasons team also announced that the bar program was being developed by ATL all-stars Greg Best and Paul Calvert. I suppose their shouts were heard — after all, you're reading this, and the three visits I've made to Bar Margot have shown that they can pack the house. Based on looks, the mostly middle-age crowd peppered with families and a random celebrity or two (Clint Eastwood at the bar) still skews to hotel guests, but who knows? Maybe the invisible fence is growing weaker?
To reach Bar Margot, you do have to stroll through the Four Seasons lobby — a short but elegant trip up the elaborate staircase, breezing by the ever-stunning daily flower arrangements. Bar Margot sits off the mezzanine balcony, a luxe lounge with a bar proper and a strange combination of traditional seating, couches, and booths in roughly 15 shades of gray. The managers and hosts are well-appointed in suits or formal dresses, while the waiters do the smart-casual thing in dark jeans, vests, and ties. More casual still are the flat-screen TVs on the wall flashing sports and a mix of '50s-heavy soul/blues/rock blasting on the speakers — at least until a DJ takes over around 9 on weekend nights, then anything goes.
Bar Margot's menu goes well beyond bar staples, reading like a cover album of Ford Fry greatest hits as sung by the Epcot choir (give me a minute and it will make sense ...). Italy takes the lead with pastas such as garganelli with pork sugo and tagliolini cacio e pepe (doing their best take on Fry's St. Cecilia and No. 246), while good old America represents with seafood like a daily fish with pork belly and Georgia clams (the Optimist). There's a token French bavette steak (Marcel and/or King and Duke), and the South (JCT. Kitchen) makes its presence felt with deviled eggs and local produce shout-outs like "nearby greens" in a salad with local Decimal Place chèvre. But wait, the nations of the world also chime in, with Spain offering jamon Serrano; India-by-way-of-England crab kedgeree; Moroccan harissa with lamb ribs; Japanese sashimi with soy vinaigrette; Korean gochujang and fried chicken. I wonder if Mexico and Fry's Superica feel left out — there's not a peep of Mex-Tex on this menu.
This hodgepodge of cuisines may sound unwieldy, but Bar Margot actually pulls it off. Crab kedgeree? I can't recall ever seeing that on a hotel restaurant menu, and Gerstenecker beautifully weds sweet chunks of crab with assertive Indian spices and fried rice, peanuts and crispy shallots adding a pleasant crunch. And lamb ribs are a seldom-seen treat, here slow-braised then finished on the grill, fatty and charred in all the right ways. A pile of fresh herbs and little bowls of spicy harissa and cool raita amp up the flavor and balance out the meaty ribs.
The more-expected dishes, like the section of house-made pastas, don't hit the same heights. Ricotta gnudi arrives plenty pillowy, but the sizable drizzle of balsamic around the plate feels far too stereotypical. And a dish of crab caramelle — little filled purses of pasta — offers a lovely fragrance of mint and preserved lemon, but the purses themselves are overly thick and chewy around the edges.
Although the wine and beer menus are solid, they still hew a bit too close to typical upscale hotel fare to garner real excitement. Better to opt for the fruits of Best and Calvert's cocktail expertise, as brought to life in the capable hands of the requisite full-bearded and man-bunned bartender mixing the drinks (this place is hip, man!). Go for the lime-forward, sherry-kissed Gin Margot if you're in the mood for something tart and refreshing; or the whisky-centric, orange-scented Mercy Street if you want dark and strong.
Bar Margot's prices are quite reasonable considering the setting, though I've noticed that most of the dishes have inched up $1 to $2 since the opening weeks, and many of the bottles of wine have gone up $10 or more. Still, sharable starters and sizable salads all hover in the low teens, while the pastas hit the mid-teens and the larger plates hit $20 and even $30 for the fish of the day. The valet parking is free with validation, though, and I'm plenty happy sipping on a thoughtful cocktail for $11 and rubbing elbows with my good friend Clint Eastwood. Maybe it's better to keep the locals out after all.