It's all about the view at the Sun Dial

Conundrum: You’ve got friends breezing through town and have been charged with giving them the “Atlanta experience” in a single meal. Do you take them to your favorite gourmet spot buzzing with energy? Weave your way through popular Buford Highway ethnic wonders? Or do you visit those classic Atlanta restaurants you save for such occasions?

You do have another option — show them Atlanta. I mean really show them with a 360-degree panoramic view towering over the ATL from 723 feet in the air. The Sun Dial, Atlanta’s revolving restaurant topping the Westin Peachtree Plaza, has long been a favored choice for tourists and special occasion diners.

Now it hopes to broaden its market and attract Atlanta’s foodie crowd to take a ride up those glass elevators. With new digs after an extensive four-month renovation and chef Jason Starnes sourcing from regional farms and local food artisans, the Sun Dial is attempting to make the shift from a hotel restaurant to a restaurant located in a hotel.

What you have is a kind of upscale dinner-and-a-movie-style theater. The view showcasing our city’s glory both day and night becomes the feature. But that view costs a premium, with the restaurant’s pricing in the top tier for Atlanta restaurants. And as with most theater fare, you’ll likely decide the appeal of the stellar show outweighs the annoyance of paying elevated venue pricing for a less-than-stellar meal.

At our first dinner showing, my husband and I ended the night with a $200 tab. Our meal didn’t even include a bottle of wine, just a single glass and a couple of beers. That and a gorgeous view of our hometown. We navigated the menu carefully, avoiding entrees for two like the bone-in prime rib ($160), whole roasted fish ($120) and whole roasted chicken ($100).

Instead, I went with items like the mushroom flan appetizer ($17) and the seared duck over cornbread ($36) that I hoped would give me a glimpse into our chef’s style, which he describes as playful and approachable.

I’ll give Starnes points for creativity for the flan. Plated with style, the appetizer, sprung from a circular mold, sat amidst a red half-moon streak of San Marzano tomato jam with a Chesapeake Bay fried oyster perched on top. Packed so tightly with roasted local mushrooms, the flan resembled more of a patty with minimal binding than the beautiful eggy custard I craved.

And I had high hopes for that duck, anticipating an edible sponge to absorb the velvety duck jus. In reality, the flabby-skinned, impossibly tough slices of waterfowl yielded no moisture to soften the dense brick of corn.

After our dinner, we decided to give brunch a whirl, taking the kids for their first rooftop view. That’s when we saw a little personality from the kitchen with the “cookies and milk” doughnuts ($9). Puffy and irregular, the steaming chocolate-chip-studded balls came with a milky creme anglaise perfect for dipping.

Our brunch chicken-n-waffles ($13) also seemed like a good bet with spicy buffalo aioli playing off the maple-cider slaw. Alas, it was form over flavor (and texture). Execution tripped up the concept here when those compelling ingredients came stuffed into thin waffles folded into hardened, grease-laden tacos. Although I was assured the waffles are housemade, they were a dead ringer for supermarket icebox version. Leggo my freshly made Belgian-style waffle? Or not.

This chef best expressed his personal flair at a special Wild Heaven beer pairings dinner. The more casual affair seemed fitting to both his personality and style — more so than the daily grind of an upscale fixed menu.

I was intrigued by his attempt to re-create the flavors of Brunswick stew with a cold salad of shrimp, housemade bacon and a North Carolina-barbecue-sauce vinaigrette. So maybe the flavors weren’t completely balanced, the shrimp cumin blasted and the vinaigrette painfully sugary, but we’ll give points for effort.

My single favorite dish at the Sun Dial was also served during the Wild Heaven dinner. It was a collaboration between Starnes and pastry chef Khoi V. Nguyen — a chef who consistently sends out desserts with polish worthy of the setting. The final course of our meal boasted a deeply chocolate cremeux with salty pretzel dust, bourbon caramel and Wild Heaven’s Ode to Mercy gelato. Lesson learned.

Here’s what you do with those Atlanta-experience seekers: Grab a table at your favorite epicurean haunt and immerse your guests in the excitement of Atlanta’s food scene. End the evening with dessert with prime seats in the bar and lounge level of the Sun Dial, where the view is just as nice. You’ll spend half the time making the revolution at a fraction of the cost.

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