John C. Portman Jr. holds a place in Atlanta history for his architectural contributions. His latest high-profile project — redesigning 230 Peachtree from a 1960s office building into a mixed-use development that includes the Hotel Indigo, upscale restaurant JP Atlanta and 17 floors of office space — is beautiful.
A curved glass and steel double stairway greets you as you enter the hotel lobby. It is breathtaking and so inviting that, even if you don’t have business upstairs, it’s hard not to climb the stairwell and pretend you’re somebody. If you have business at JP Atlanta, it’s irresistible not to get to the restaurant by walking across the sleek glass bridge that separates the stairs and overlooks a pool of shimmering water.
It’s too bad that the best part about dining at JP Atlanta is the space. I visited JP Atlanta three times. Each occasion left me wanting.
Take 1, dinner: an empty room on a Friday night. An eager-to-please server handled my party of four without missteps, though the pacing felt hurried at times. The food was a different story. An appetizer of undercooked duck meatballs sat in a thin, confounding tangerine sauce. Sourdough bread and butter would have been fine on their own, but instead were botched by the addition of a stringy spring garlic-oregano paste that could have used a pass through a sieve or chinois.
Entrees — lamb loin, beef short ribs, halibut and diver scallops — were all prepared properly in their own right, but each protein, with the exception of the scallops, was muted by busy, disjointed components that left us feeling indifferent and unimpressed. The almond-crusted lamb loin did not benefit from an artichoke puree underneath it or from the two grilled apricot wedges (that subbed for peaches normally used for the dish), which only contributed good looks instead of helping to unite flavors.
The sweet glaze on the tender beef short rib was delicious on its own. The addition of an Asian peanut sauce was unnecessary, and thin white rice wafers arranged atop the meat were pure distraction.
Atlantic halibut was pleasantly flaky and fresh tasting. That plate was colorful, too, with a twirlable salad of spiralized green and yellow summer squash, with patterns of orange and yellow and green bell pepper jus dotting the plate. Yet that pepper liquid was so bitter that I kept my fish far away from it.
The scallop dish was the only entree whose elements worked in accord instead of competing with one another. Under those perfectly seared, plump and buttery scallops were “grits” made from a very sweet variety of corn called Zellwood, sourced from Florida. A delicate herb salad of petite fronds, tossed in light lemon vinaigrette, crowned the presentation.
Dessert was a bit more satisfying. A fudgy brownie that was part of a plate called Chocolate and Lavender was a treat. That, with a scoop of the accompanying lavender-Earl Grey ice cream, would have been enough instead of the fuss of an artsy smear of dark chocolate caramel or tear-drop shapes of cocoa nib meringue.
An order of carrot doughnuts begat a shareable platter of six large doughnut holes. Some diners might find all the extras playful: the dots of candied carrots, a carrot-ginger sauce, raisin jam, cream cheese sorbet over a walnut crumble. To me, there were too many textures and flavors for the palate to appreciate, even as they served as eye candy. Though the fried dough barely held a hint of carrot flavor, I’d have been content with just the doughnuts and cream cheese sorbet.
Take 2: A weekday lunch sharing the dining room with a handful of other guests. The meal started off promising, with a creative take on deviled eggs that featured four squares of buttery, toasted brioche, each topped with a piping of egg salad and crowned with smoked roe.
Then came a burger that had fantastic flavors, but with a patty that could not hold together and a side of rubbery French fries. The remoulade-like comeback sauce salvaged an otherwise dry fried chicken sandwich. A portion of salty sauteed spinach was mainly left untouched.
And then there was the kale salad. It could have been more appealing, had the leaves been massaged to ease the bitterness and ripped to bite-size pieces, the ribs and stems removed. A trio of raw radishes — red, black and watermelon — were cut into discs so thick they were more like crudites than components of a salad. The salad was dotted with a thick apricot puree that had nothing in common with the buttermilk dressing already tossed on the greens.
It was a kale salad to destroy any last bit of love you might have for the former darling among dark, leafy greens. Strips of hanger steak, juicy and flavorful, albeit lazily trimmed of fat, were positioned to the side, not touching the greens. That mélange couldn’t handle the meat anyway.
Take 3: Drinks and noshes at the polished circular bar appear to be JP Atlanta’s sweet spot. Weekdays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. is “power hour.” You’ll find select beers, wine by the glass and a featured cocktail, priced between $5 and $7. If ordering from the regular drink menu, the Peachtree Sour is a nice sipper, refreshing even, and distinct, with a toasted pecan orgeat and peach-pecan preserves.
The power hour food menu includes the aforementioned burger, knocked down to $7 instead of the $14 lunch price. The deviled eggs make an appearance in this hour as well.
Power hour is also when you encounter the most people. When more than half the bar spots are taken, there is a vibe — that of the business traveler loosening his tie — compared with the empty quietness of the restaurant and its numerous seating options: tables in the airy main dining area, a couple of semi-secluded circular booths, and a length of banquette seating that flanks a futuristic-looking walkway leading to the adjacent AmericasMart.
Sleek, complicated in design, but appearing simple — that’s what stands out for me about Portman’s post-modern aesthetic and, specifically, the space at JP Atlanta.
Juxtaposed to that, the seasonal fare at JP Atlanta is needlessly complicated. Perhaps the best example is the olive-citrus-crusted white asparagus. I was hoping for a celebration of that unique vegetable. Instead, the freshness of the asparagus was muted under the yolk of a fried egg and black caviar that begged for its own attention.