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Chefs’ fearlessness pays off more than it backfires

Let’s play a word association game: Cocktail driven. Small plates. Locally sourced.

Did you just get visions of overplayed deviled eggs and bowls of bacon fat-soaked Brussels sprouts? If so, I have good news: Last Word, the new Lebanese-inspired restaurant in the Old Fourth Ward from former Woodfire Grill owner Bernard Moussa and Videodrome’s Matt Booth, is a refreshing change of pace.

Co-chefs Matt Palmerlee of the Branded Butcher and Eddie Russell of Coterie & Tie evenly split duties in the kitchen. If you aren’t familiar with their previous posts in Athens, you might better recognize them as part of the collective behind the much-buzzed-about supper club, the Four Coursemen. The always-evolving menu is entirely small plates, with only a few dishes approaching entrée-sized portions, and most dishes are great for sharing with a group.

While Last Word draws influence from Lebanese cuisine, to pigeonhole this simply as a Lebanese restaurant would be a mistake. Russell and Palmerlee are fearless, pushing out flavors and dishes that genuinely stand out amid the white noise of refined Southern gastropubs that continue to pop up. They take risks, and though at times that fearlessness borders on recklessness, it pays off more than it backfires.

Moussa and Booth’s concept also relies heavily on the cocktail program, run by beverage director Cole Younger Just.

Like the food, some of Just’s cocktails pull in hints of Lebanese and Mediterranean flavors. My favorite is the Arabian Julep ($10). Served in an ornate copper julep cup, this bourbon cocktail comes piled high with shaved frozen ginger beer and a dollop of deep red bitters. I can’t tell you if it was the ginger beer or the bitters, but something in this drink fit perfectly with the rest of the Lebanese flavors in my dishes.

I’ll also come back for another East of Eden ($10), a bright, citrusy bourbon cocktail with peppery notes from a hint of grains of paradise. And the oenophiles among you will love the surprisingly deep and well-crafted wine list.

Russell and Palmerlee’s finesse shines in dishes like the rabbit liver mousse ($9). Whipped into a light and creamy texture, the mildness of the liver flavor pleasantly surprised me. A cube of lemony whey gelee and thin apple slices balanced this beautifully.

Similarly, the pear and grapefruit frisee salad ($9) was a bright and refreshing starter for a meal, with nice pops of acidity from the shallot vinaigrette and the citrus.

If you want a little more wow factor for your salad, check out the charred radicchio and fried lemon ($10). The thin, deep-fried slices of lemon wipe out the bitter bite you often find with radicchio, and a dab of tahini and a golden raisin or two make for a harmonious, complex bite.

Perhaps the most surprising and impressive dish is the porchetta di testa and octopus terrine ($12). Calling it “terrine” might mislead, and I wonder how many diners have passed on this, imagining a pate-like loaf of pig’s head and octopus. Instead, the porchetta di testa — the marinated meat of a deboned pig’s head rolled into a sumptuously delicious log of heavenly porky goodness — comes in a paper-thin layer beneath tender, thin slices of octopus tentacle, with a smear of saffron aioli through the center. The porchetta melts on the tongue. Step outside of your comfort zone and try this one.

On the more filling side, definitely don’t pass up the house-made tagliatelle ($13). Topped with mushroom confit and smoked peanut breadcrumbs, this is a seriously satisfying bowl of pasta. I have feeling that I’ll stop by more than once for a bowl of this and a cocktail when I’m in the area.

Or try the perfectly fried whole Georgia quail ($14), served with toum — Lebanese garlic sauce — salsa verde, kale and fingerling potato. Ditch the fork and dig in on this one with your hands, reveling in the moist and flavor-packed quail. I hope these two dishes earn a permanent spot on the roster.

Sometimes, however, Russell and Palmerlee’s ambition gets the best of them, as in the raw scallop ($13), served atop absinthe panna cotta with cured mushroom and chervil. I wanted to love this dish, but the creamy texture of the panna cotta combined with the raw scallop was a little too off-putting. The anise was kept expertly in check, and the flavor was good, but the bottarga cracker was an absolute must to offset the homogeneous texture of the scallop and panna cotta. I’m rooting for this one, but something just didn’t work here.

And I don’t know if it was by design or perhaps didn’t make it to the table fast enough, but the cold labneh (strained Greek yogurt) on the hot Georgia shrimp ($13) left me with a lukewarm bowl that distracted from an otherwise promising dish.

Sure, there were some misses on the menu, but they swing for the fences, and I applaud that. Overall, Last Word pushes unique and challenging flavor combinations, and I’m extremely excited that talents like Palmerlee and Russell have settled here.

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