Review: Garden setting at Linton’s more illuminating than the food

Have you ever been high in expectation of a special event only to be let down? Maybe you didn’t get the birthday present you hoped for — or, worse, your big day went forgotten. Maybe the concert you paid a pretty penny to attend was lousy — or, worse, the rock star canceled at the last minute. Perhaps you ate lunch at Linton’s at the botanical garden — or, worse, you went there for dinner.

Linton’s is the new, full-service restaurant situated amid the lush greenery of the Atlanta Botanical Garden. My anticipation was high for many reasons. It bears the name of Linton Hopkins, a highly respected name in the restaurant industry. Restaurant Eugene, Holeman & Finch Public House, H&F Burger, Hop’s Chicken, H&F Bread Co., H&F Bottle Shop. He’s played a part in all of those ventures and deserves every bit the accolades he’s received.

Secondly, when it comes to a dining setting, it’s hard to do better than a calming, open space with floor-to-ceiling views of flora and masterful Chihuly sculptures that come alive at night with bright lights.

Finally, I was hungry for what I thought that I’d get: a groundbreaking garden-to-table concept at a cultural institution. After all, Linton’s Executive Chef Jason Paolini and his team are given access to ingredients grown in the garden’s own soil.

My woes began when we arrived at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. The reservation was incorrectly listed as a party of six instead of four. The hostess asked us to wait for a moment while they pulled two place settings from the table. Some 15 minutes later, someone in my group approached the receptionist again. Uh, yes, the table was ready, she said. The room was fairly crowded but nothing out of the ordinary for a fine-dining restaurant on a weekend night.

When we sat down, the server plunked down one printed drink menu. About 5 minutes later, two other servers rushed by to drop off three more drink menus — along with food menus.

I believe we had four different servers in the course of the evening. Maybe that’s why the oversize menus (they claimed so much table space that I finally collected them and and set them on the floor) were not removed until we were nearly done with our entrees. Whose job was that? Getting our plates cleared was an entirely different problem.

So, too, the food those plates held.

There is a difference between assembling, or arranging, plates of food made by local and regional producers and actually using those high-quality ingredients to cook something new. At Linton’s, you can share a board of charcuterie with product crafted by the Spotted Trotter and cured trout from Sunburst Trout Farms out of North Carolina. You can order a cheese plate that puts a spotlight on local and regional farmstead creameries. If you order the eggplant-filled piramide, the stuffed pasta is made by Storico Fresco. A lot of gelato comes from local maker Honeysuckle.

So, rah-rah for local.

But the contemporary American cuisine coming out of this kitchen does not showcase culinary muscle.

Being at a botanical garden, where horticultural experimentation happens and rare species are cultivated, plus, this being the height of the growing season, I hoped for something more glamorous than plain old broccoli — I dunno, rapini, perhaps? — as a supporting member of a tagliatelle dish that also held chanterelles, summer squash and pancetta. Broccoli also showed up in a so-called blackened cabbage dish that included wilted, not charred, cabbage (as well as Padron peppers that were wilted, not charred as stated on the menu) with roasted summer squash, okra and creamed corn. The saving grace on that cabbage dish: delicious ricotta-stuffed, fried squash blossoms.

On two occasions, I ordered the poached egg and johnnycake appetizer. The first time, the egg must have sat in the pass too long, because the yolk had reached hard-boiled status, which meant that the undressed frisee was left undressed. The second time, at an uncrowded, weekday lunch, the yolk did its job, but the johnnycake was rubbery and overcooked.

Not even potato chips were cooked properly. Some were underfried, others were deep brown and tasted burnt; all of them were oily.

There were moments of deliciousness.

An heirloom tomato salad held halves of plum- and pear-shaped cherry tomatoes at their peak with chunks of creamy fromage blanc, garden-grown basil and toothy croutons atop a thin coating of a cucumber gazpacho.

A heftier salad nicoise featured tuna two ways — squares seared to a medium-rare and confit nibbles — with hericot verts, potatoes, thin discs of watermelon radish, slices of hard-boiled egg and an olive tapenade whose brininess brought it all together. It was simple, fresh, artsy enough and thoroughly delicious.

A compressed watermelon salad, available on the lunch menu, was a presentation of juicy watermelon and honeydew cubes beefed up with country ham, ricotta, a handful of peppery arugula leaves and a delicate, sweet benne seed wafer.

Another lunchtime-only pleaser was the chilled zucchini and mint soup. The mint, grown at the garden, offered a subtle, welcome presence. Studded with tiny bits of crawfish, sunchoke chips and tart grapefruit and orange segments, this cooling soup offered relief during 95-degree heat.

Among entrees, a potage of Georgia shrimp over grits with she-crab cream was down-home, lip-smacking great.

The highlight was the paneed mountain trout. A crispy skin, flaky flesh, an assembly of heat-wilted dandelion greens, Benton’s bacon, creamed corn, white asparagus and pan-fried onions brought out all sorts of sweet, salty and savory flavors. Available on the lunch and dinner menus, this is the dish to order.

Desserts begat more sighs and yawns. Can we stop with creme brule? Why must we do banana cream pie when there is so much local fruit available right now? A chocolate mousse with a house chocolate bar can satisfy a sweet tooth, but the plop of brown on brown — the only color on the plate — was unappealing.

These gripes balloon when I consider what diners fork over just to enter Linton’s, especially at night, when the parking fee rises to $10 and even members have to pay an entrance fee ($15.95 for members, $21.95 for nonmembers) to get a view of the illuminated Chihuly in the Garden installation. In short, my dinner party of four was already down nearly $100 before we ever took a seat.

But, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. You’ve come to the garden to stroll the grounds and happen to find yourself hungry. If it’s lunchtime, Linton’s fresh salads, soups and sandwiches will sate you. It isn’t fast food. And. I guess that’s progress for a cultural institution. If it’s nighttime, enjoy the glow of Chihuly sculptures. Don’t expect fireworks from the food.

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