Review: Simon’s Restaurant, in spot Luda made famous, has bumpy start

Simon’s Restaurant, at the corner of Juniper and Fifth streets in Midtown, is a dining room with a past.

Some years ago, this much-renovated structure on a stretch of Juniper known for its stately homes was a place called Spice. Just recently, it was Time Restaurant & Lounge. In between and perhaps most notably, it was Straits Atlanta, a Singaporean-influenced restaurant where Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and his team served kung pao lollipops and a $50 margarita. (Ludacris flew the coop to open Chicken + Beer at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport last year.)

Now as the namesake project of Simon Guobadia (who operated Time), the multilevel space retains the glitzy ambience of days gone by — padded leather bar, twinkly chandeliers, lots of mirrors, contemporary furniture — with a menu to match.

With Kandi Burruss’ Old Lady Gangchef Darius Williams’ Greens & Gravy and now Simon’s, I’m starting to think Atlanta’s moneyed urban crowd has a preferred cuisine all its own: richly overwrought Southern comfort food typified by fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread.

Not, as they say, that there’s anything wrong with that. But on the night my friend and I trudged up the curving concrete staircase out front and pushed our way through the heavy, vaultlike red door, things felt very much amiss, from the poorly mixed $12 cocktails to the efficient but rather awkward service to the plastic faux-silver spoons that accompanied dessert.

Parking, it should probably be pointed out, can be a bit of a conundrum. Since no one was home at the valet stand in the big empty lot across Fifth Street, we assumed parking was free. Nope. The front-of-house peeps advised us to go back out and put money in the machine lurking in the corner of the property.

No problem. Nothing that a strong drink wouldn’t help.

Alas, my cocktail order of a Piedmont Avenue (a dry vodka martini with an olive) was a little on the sweet side, even after I asked for a do-over. (Did the bartender use red vermouth by mistake? Twice?) My guest’s 5th & Fashion, a petite Old Fashioned knockoff with bourbon, walnut bitters, orange and a maraschino cherry, was perfectly fine but nothing exceptional.

Three grilled oysters dotted with lemon butter, smoked paprika and some indiscernible dried herb were pitiful, shriveled up little bivalves — good ingredients gone to waste. Though we expected our crab dip to be cold, it was piping hot, more of a cheesy gratin, really. I’d never ask for it again. But because we were ravenous, we spread it on grilled baguette and carried on.

A chopped salad of romaine, bacon, corn, sweet cornbread croutons and tangy buttermilk dressing was a better option, even if it was more like “rough torn” than truly chopped.

I’ll say one thing: Our entrees of Grouper & Grits and Springer Mountain Roasted Chicken with mac and cheese and garlicky green beans were certainly generous, super-size portions. The fish was heavily seasoned, the grits heavy on the cheese, but the technique was there. Ditto the chicken, though I was perplexed by the lemon zest on the rotini mac and cheese, and I won’t sob if I never have another crunchy, under-cooked haricot vert again.

We ended the night with a playfully deconstructed banana pudding in a glass tumbler: biscotti-textured cookies with lots of whipped cream and brulee-torched bananas. I had to laugh when the server, struggling to describe the dessert, asked my friend, “Have you ever had vanilla wafers?” (Why, yes! Yes, we have!) and again when the pudding arrived with those plastic spoons.

So what’s going on here? Why is the food so jarringly uneven? One might assume it has something to do with the chef.

When Guobadia (who partnered with Zaza Pachulia on the now-shuttered Bottle Bar and LDV Hospitality on American Cut) disclosed plans for Simon’s, he designated Marvin Woods (late of Asante) as executive chef. Soon after, it was announced that Allysa Storms (Barcelona Wine Bar) would run the kitchen. Now we’re told that though Storms developed the menu and opened Simon’s, Shamir Wahl, who worked with Guobadia in the past, is the executive chef.

Talk about musical chairs.

If Wahl wants to make Simon’s a dining destination, he’s got his work cut out. For now, it’s an unsuccessful culinary hodgepodge on a corner of Midtown that’s had greater hits. With Luda gone, now it’s just plain ludicrous.

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