One Midtown Kitchen has culinary creativity, but space outdoes plates

First impressions matter. Food, drinks, service? All of that matters, too — a lot, actually — but what we see when we first step inside a restaurant sets expectations for what’s to come. Is the place polished and well appointed? Industrial cool? Quaint and homey? Worn and dirty? Those initial feelings can have us questioning whether it’s better to do a 180 and walk out the door or be in high hopes for an excellent evening.

At first look, One Midtown brings high hopes for an excellent evening. The space is inviting. Every seat is appealing: the round booths covered in soft, plush fabric, the attention-grabber opulent oval banquette that nearly spans the entire main dining area, the handful of stools near the chef’s table by the front door. No matter where you sit, you get a backdoor view of Piedmont Park and a lit-up Midtown skyline, of the action in the open kitchen, marked by a constant red glow of the wood-fired oven.

Then there’s the intrigue: passing through the dark entryway, the dark recesses in the bar area or the riddle of learning which unmarked doors are restrooms, which ones are occupied (look for the red light) and that all of them are unisex.

One Midtown Kitchen is a Concentrics concept. The Concentrics group does design very well. Even though this restaurant is now 15 years old, the former warehouse space feels fresh and in keeping up with the times. From lighting to accent pieces that change with the seasons, Concentrics pays attention to detail and it shows.

The same can’t be said for food, drinks and service, at least not on a consistent basis.

Like when the beer draught system is out. It tends to happen as it’s a fickle system, said the server. Cocktails can disappoint, too. The white whiskey in the Georgia Sour burns the tongue. That freshly ground garnish of black pepper for the sweet leaning pisco-based On Holiday is caught in your throat and you’re trying hard not to cough. Similar to the On Holiday, the potent, rye-based North Fulton is served in glassware two sizes too big, with about 2 ounces of liquid poured into a 6-ounce Old Fashioned glass. (The North Fulton also needs ice. They have oversize cubes here. Ask for one.) Since both cocktails will get you in a glass-half-empty mood, stick with wine. The list is varied and even by-the-glass options are interesting.

Perk up further with an order of roasted carrots, a highlight on this carte that changes regularly. The roasted carrots are a good expression of New American creativity by Matt Weinstein, who came aboard as co-exec chef in July 2015 but who took full charge this past December. This colorful, albeit busy, dish surprises for bringing together so many flavors and textures: those neatly trimmed roasted baby carrots, a swoosh of acorn squash puree, dollops of goat cheese pesto, various toasted seeds, a cured egg yolk and wisps of micro greenery. The dish begged for bread to wipe the plate clean.

Less impressive were crispy Brussels sprouts sitting in a gloppy sauce that held the Asian inflections of gochujang, honey and soy. The dish felt overworked, the flavors disjointed. Too bad, since the sprouts themselves were nicely browned and crispy.

Beet labneh, another plate swoosh move, lent distinction to the Mixed Green Salad with Asian pear and a honey vinaigrette, although sweet dates that studded the bowl threatened to arrest control of flavors.

The menu is organized by shareability, with more communal plates listed at top and entrees further below. From the middle zone, wood-roasted octopus brought one long tentacle encircled with butternut squash puree and puy lentils with the undertones of Indian spices. The octo-lentil pairing, though interesting, and the octo itself not rubbery in the least, was not as impressive as the papadum disc, the Indian flatbread cracker crisp and glistening with oil.

For a meaty shareable offering, make it the chicken-fried pork belly. Pork belly given fried chicken treatment then topped with red onion jam and sitting on a bed of red beans and jasmine rice was creative, filling and hitting all the marks of sweet and salty, crunchy and unctuous.

I can’t say the same for a mussel risotto whose garnish of celery root chips softened within seconds. Or of a mint-heavy tagliatelle with braised lamb or of wood-roasted trout sitting in a thin sauce that doesn’t stand up to the claim of being a clam chowder or of a chewy flat iron with a chimichurri that would win no awards, the meat portion looking meager compared to the generous pile of fries.

One Midtown has the mandatory burger. Despite thoughtful details like pecan-smoked bacon, Tillamook cheddar, bread-and-butter pickles and a cheddar bun, it wasn’t the kind of juicy burger to retain in the mental “best burger” bank. The accompanying truffle fries were satisfactory, but the plating was again a bit sad, with burger and fries taking up only half the plate. That’s a lot of white space. At $21, I’d pass.

More satisfying was the pork schnitzel, nicely breaded and resting in a bowl of standout Gouda grits. Smoked carrots, kale, pistachios and caramelized onions kept each bite interesting.

And, on a cold winter night, there is but one thing to order: rabbit pot pie. It offers every bit of comfort you desire from pot pie, but changes it up with hare, a big ol’ biscuit top sealing the deal.

That biscuit was delicious. It was also the best pastry to come out of the kitchen, even after ordering a number of desserts.

For all of its components, including a curious drizzle of red beet caramel and a scoop of rich butterscotch ice cream, the Kit Kat Bar did not come together. The Caramel Nut Mini Pie was a study in drab brown. Muscadine Semifreddo was a bizarre-looking creation. Purple-tinged rounds of semifreddo — ice cold and crystalline — looked like a frozen hot dog cut into four pieces. These sat on top of almond dacquoise — the thin, white meringue disk hard as rock and challenging to eat with a spoon. The Spiced Madeleines might be the best bet, but only if what you are really after is a mug of hot cocoa, which outshone the shell-shaped cookies.

There’s certainly creativity happening in the kitchen right now as Weinstein and his team give a modern spin to recognizable dishes and aren’t afraid to call on global influences. You can witness that energy just by watching the kitchen — much more than the staff walking the floor (with the exception of an affable, animated fellow named Bob Bost, who has worked the host stand since day one), and you can experience it in the food that sometimes is on point and other times misses the mark you’d hope for at a place that charges upscale dining prices.

The gist, I think, is that it’s not enough for a menu to read well on paper, or for plating to make you do a double take. Looks alone don’t make a restaurant great.

Watch One Midtown Kitchen pastry chef Danielle Smathers make her Thai basil lemon curd tart:

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