Truman is nostalgia-driven, but it’s not the throwback we’ve become accustomed to lately. There’s nary an absinthe-spiked, speakeasy-style cocktail in the joint. No waxed mustaches either.
No, this place recalls a time that many of us actually remember, along with stirrup pants, spray-crisped Jersey bangs and power suits. Picture the kind of red-blooded grub and booze that Gordon Gekko from the flick “Wall Street” would slam back between bons mots about financial pillage. That’s what Truman serves. Massive slabs of prime rib. The kind of mollusks meant to be consumed in a smoke-filled room. (Clams Casino has recently been replaced on the menu by the equally evocative Oysters Rockefeller.) There’s filet mignon and lobster tail, creamed spinach and sauces that range from bernaise to hollandaise to Marsala.
Yet co-owner Brian Buchanan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November that Truman’s vibe also fits into progressive Decatur. His nostalgia was less for the fuel of hostile takeovers than the “things you may have eaten with your parents 25 years ago.”
As it happens, my very first taste at Truman did make me misty-eyed. It was a complimentary popover, eggy and air-puffed and very hot. Perched on top of a mug with a rich, buttery dipping sauce, it was fluffily delicious and took me back to a ladies’ lunch I had with my mother at Neiman Marcus, albeit more than 25 years ago.
But here’s another quote from one of the Truman crew — this time, it’s chef Michael Condon: “… Every single person has tried prime rib or Caesar salad or French onion soup. With this type of menu, if something’s not spot-on, everyone knows it.”
He’s right, unfortunately. After that popover, almost everything we ate at Truman on a recent Friday night disappointed, proving that nostalgia will only get you so far.
The Chicken Francaise, for instance — a cutlet served in a puddle of lemon, butter and white wine — was straight out of the staid country club of my husband’s youth. Even if the breading on Truman’s version hadn’t been soggy, even if the endless swath of pounded chicken breast hadn’t been bland and the sauce basic, this stale memory still would have dragged the dish down.
The same was true of the open-faced prime rib sandwich. We ordered the sandwich for its $20 price tag, skipping the $32 “queen cut” or $39 16-18-ounce “king cut” prime rib.
Even so, what we got was an overwhelmingly large slab of meat. Blanketing its pointless bread, the beef was pale pink and, beyond a fat ribbon here and there, largely textureless. It was also cool and its only flavor came from a hint of gaminess and ample dollops of very mild horseradish cream.
On the other hand, I had few complaints about a pink peppercorn salmon. It was just as unimaginative as the prime rib, but it was executed with more care. The high-quality fish wasn’t overcooked, and its crust of cracked pink peppercorns added some zing and crunch. The fish’s clunky bed of watercress and cucumbers, heavily bathed in a mayo-based dressing, did it no favors, but it didn’t ruin it either. In other words, this dish was not particularly special, but it was just fine in much the same way that my sweet and boozy “123 Manhattan” was perfectly adequate.
Maybe in an attempt to do better than fine, Truman has excised this salmon treatment from the menu since my visit. Their fish is now hoisin-glazed and served on wilted spinach flavored with scallions, pickled ginger and black sesame.
Also recently axed from the lineup is the Linguini Fra Diavolo, which was my favorite dish of the evening. Well-stocked with plump clams, mussels and shrimp, the perfectly al dente pasta was tossed with a chunky and good tomato sauce — not too sweet, not too bitter, and refreshingly spicy. This classic pasta has been replaced by a more modern-sounding pappardelle with serrano, arugula and lemon zest and a gnocchi with wild mushrooms, edamame and house-made ricotta.
If Truman had asked me what to cut, I would have voted for the funky, cheddar-encrusted creamed spinach, the sawdust-like, practically crab-free crabcake and the grilled Cheshire pork chop served with a thick fried apple on the side. Despite an oniony glaze, this chop was dry and mealy, requiring full-muscled sawing with a steak knife. The apple fritter, on the other hand, was crunchily undercooked.
Unfortunately, those dishes linger on the menu, kind of like a hangover after a high school reunion.
Speaking of hanging over, our server was quite the hoverer. (She was also competent and efficient.) I can only assume the over-attention was because the restaurant was more than half-empty and she needed something to do. But coming over while we were still doggedly gnawing at our meat and proposing, “So, creme brulee?” was a little tone-deaf.
It was also weary-making. I didn’t want the creme brulee (or the cheesecake or the “very good chocolate cake”) because by then, I was listless. It’s a fine line between a charming throwback of a meal and a broken-record bore of one. Given that this dinner was also expensive and unevenly executed, I’m putting Truman into the same category as those “Wall Street days”: It’s history I’d rather not revisit.
123 E. Court Square, Decatur. 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11:30 a.m.-12 a.m. Sundays. 404-907-4116, trumantavern.com.