On the surface, the Mercury (675 Ponce De Leon Ave. N.E., 404-500-5253, themercuryatl.com.) has everything going for it: Top-notch cocktail minds. A chef with solid experience. A swanky mid-century modern aesthetic with sleek custom chairs and tables that look like something out of “Mad Men.” A beautiful oval bar that takes up half the restaurant and is stocked with all sorts of cocktail curios.Considering that the Mercury is co-owned and operated by Atlanta cocktail royalty Julian Goglia of the Pinewood Tippling Room, I was surprised by the cloying sweetness of so many cocktails I had here. After my visits, I found myself perplexed. How could they screw up the drinks? The Mercury is tucked away in a far corner on the second floor of the behemoth Ponce City Market, out of sight from the main food hall but still in range of the mall walkers looking to fill their go cups. Sit at the bar near the door and there’s a good chance you’ll get sideswiped by one of them in passing. The restaurant, which is one of the higher end restaurants in the market, is big — 4,400 square feet — with ambitions to match. But the experience falls short, especially when it comes to the food.Goglia says he and his partners, chef Mike Blydenstein and Brooks Cloud, started with a much simpler vision: a place with cocktails and a good prime rib sandwich. They originally had a smaller space about the size of the Pinewood in mind. But the restaurant evolved into something much larger and more complex than they’d envisioned after PCM landlord Jamestown offered a space five times larger across the hallway. Instead of just a prime rib sandwich, the Mercury offers prime rib (procured locally from Revere meat company) in three different cuts and named after the three partners, sides, oysters, steakhouse salads, and plenty of meat. No value assigned
Goglia has great presence as he circles the room in his suit, thick black glasses, and black hair, looking like a cross between Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash. But I wish he was behind the bar more teaching his staff how to make balanced drinks, because even though the mai tai came in a beautiful crystal glass crowned with a purple orchid, it was so sickly sweet I had to ask for extra lime juice to make it drinkable. The same fate befell my Old Fashioned, Daiquiri, and Whiskey Sour. I switched to beer during my last visit. The Ode to Viceroy, however, was a nicely tart and balanced drink of scotch, ginger, lime, and falernum. Should your party all be in the mood for the same drink, the bar offers classic cocktails such as martinis and Rob Roys made tableside. Blydenstein, who worked for Emeril Lagasse before coming to the Pinewood, oversees the food at both the Pinewood and the Mercury. His kitchen at the Mercury struggles with seasoning and technique, mostly too much salt and not enough technique. Too much salt in the otherwise comforting classic French onion soup and homemade lattice-cut potato chips. Too much stuff in my bowl of burrata ravioli with wild mushrooms, cherry tomato, asparagus, and beurre blanc. The pasta was colored red and yellow, something that disturbs me as much as red, white, and blue tortilla chips. The salt and acid levels were in check, but the excess of toppings weighed down this otherwise silky pasta. At lunch, my prime rib sandwich disintegrated after I cut it in half, slumping and spreading onto the plate until it resembled Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Burned chicken breast ruined a Cobb salad with its bitterness. The crunchy crab Louie salad, however, was as fun to eat as a big salad gets. Large chunks of romaine are mixed with boiled eggs, jumbo lump crab, tomato, asparagus, and avocado. Though it needed salt, I’d come back for this dish. That and the Pinewood burger, an excellent double stack topped with American cheese, thick bacon, lettuce, tomato, onions, and remoulade, brought over from its namesake. A pan-sautéed filet of trout had nice crispy edges and was set atop baby vegetables. No value assigned
The prime rib gets a lot of play, but each time I’ve had it, it’s been dry instead of tender like you’d expect from such a luxurious piece of meat cooked slow and low. It’s served à la carte with a creamy horseradish sauce and a dish of jus. A straightforward New York strip was the best piece of meat I tried. It was juicy and perfectly cooked. For a place with so many steaks on the menu, the prices are moderate versus somewhere like Ford Fry’s Marcel. The most expensive item is the Brooks’s Cut of prime rib for $49. A basic 12-ounce New York strip costs $32. Dinner for two with drinks can easily run $150-$200.Each steak comes with a choice of eight sauces, none of which seemed to be prepared correctly, most disappointingly the bordelaise that was bright red rather than the earthier deep burgundy looked for in a sauce made with red wine and veal stock. Sides have been disappointing with undercooked cauliflower in the cauliflower gratin, runny creamed spinach, and gummy whipped potatoes. Desserts — most of which are brought in from Yoss Baking, a small wholesale bakery in Norcross — are a bright spot in a town where dessert often disappoints. The most ordered dessert must be the birthday cake. It arrives with a tall silver candle that shoots sparkles into the air as the server delivers the Funfetti-studded yellow cake with chocolate buttercream. Sadly, though, the cake is flavorless. Instead, I direct you to the key lime pie, carrot cake, or ice cream sundae, which are all exceptional. The carrot cake has just the right amount of spice to complement the moist cake’s toothy bites of carrot. The cream cheese frosting is just sweet enough. A layered key lime pie ends the meal on a tart and flaky note. And a towering ice cream sundae with walnuts and chocolate sauce is the kind of thing you want to share on a first date.
The Mercury has the foundation to be something beyond steaks and cocktail roadies, but right now, it lacks finesse. You could make a meal here, if pressed to dine, but a destination this is not. It seems that the trio got too far away from its original vision and lost in an ambitious concept. (2 out of 5 stars)