On a recent Friday afternoon, I wandered past the perfumed glass counters of Saks Fifth Avenue and glanced at the platinum jewelry on display at Tiffany and Co. I watched for a moment as a man considered the purchase of a bright red leather Gucci handbag for his wife. The slick, cool concourse of Phipps Plaza then led me to Public Kitchen & Bar.
It is a finely appointed room, a comfortable fit among those luxurious peers. The bar’s thick Carrera marble countertop is affixed with a series of gilded lamps dimmed to just the right hue. The dining room’s midcentury styled banquettes are tufted in a slick, modern style. The walls are hung with elegant photographs on loan from Jackson Fine Art. A glassed-in fireplace flickers with flames on even the hottest of summer days without putting off the mere suggestion of heat. It is, as they say, for show.
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Anyone familiar with the Buckhead dining scene knows a little about this show. From the low subway-tiled arches of Chop’s Lobster Bar to the soaring, two-story ceiling of Ford Fry’s St. Cecilia, this is a neighborhood that expects style first and food second. It is a lesson that clearly has not been lost on the folks at Daniel Reed Hospitality, who run a group of successful restaurants in Savannah, including the original location of Public Kitchen. As I’ve noticed over the course of my recent meals, Public Kitchen’s sophisticated, stylish environs somewhat belie the fact that this is a middlebrow restaurant, cut from the same fabric that defines “something for everyone” mall restaurants in any major city in America.
Some of the dishes served here are carried over from Public Kitchen’s original location in Savannah. There is the tuna tartare tower, a ring mold that sandwiches pink ahi tuna between layers of avocado and mango. The dish is presented with a handful of crostini, a couple of lime wedges, some dry arugula and a drizzle of balsamic glaze. Though it is a little sweet and wanting for a kick of salt or spice, it is a fine snack, as reliable as it was when restaurants in Los Angeles started serving it 40 years ago. It would make a fine pair for nibbling between sips of the Spanish 75, a bright tequila cocktail topped with a generous pour of cava.
Though it is on the other side of the culinary spectrum, much the same could be said of the spinach dip, a creamy ramekin capped with a layer of broiled cheese served with triangles of toasted pita bread. This plate isn’t going to impress anyone as a unique or distinct preparation, but paired with a glass of pinot noir, I found myself sopping up the last creamy bits before my server could take the dish away.
This is, of course, the aim of the “something for everyone” playbook. The dishes are largely familiar to the average diner. The spectrum of offerings are calibrated to include appeals to the health-conscious ahi tuna eater on one end and the spinach dip-slurping glutton on the other. Judging by the relative popularity of this approach, one can comfortably assume that it is a good business plan, not unlike the way Hollywood studios calibrate summer movies to appeal to the largest demographics.
The kitchen here offers plenty of everything except, perhaps, personality. The most notable distinction is that Public Kitchen sources ground beef from one partner’s (Jamie Durrence) family farm in Georgia’s Tattnall County. That kind of direct sourcing and connection is one of the ways that restaurants find to showcase a little local flair, like serving a plate of beef tartare that showcases the distinct flavors of the beef or finding a way to pair it with other local ingredients, like the Vidalia onions or pecans that this agricultural region is known for. No such luck.
The burgers served here are solid 8-ounce patties topped with pimento cheese and bacon or a sweet barbecue sauce and coleslaw. They’re good, solid offerings, the kind that pair just fine with a glass of iced tea or a can of Tybee Island Blonde ale, but they aren’t the sort of showcase for a distinct ingredient that they could be.
There are a few interesting options. A recent addition to the menu is an appetizer of fried gator tail and Brussels sprouts drizzled with a spicy-sweet peach sauce. The gator is trimmed into nugget-size bites, and the Brussels hold up with an admirable fried crunch. Gator tail may be the most unusual sounding ingredient on this menu, but it also happens to taste almost exactly like chicken fingers. Who doesn’t love chicken fingers?
Public Kitchen is not a restaurant struggling with execution, though there are minor quibbles. If you order a burger medium rare, it’ll likely be cooked to medium. A side of garlicky green beans could have been better trimmed and stringed. For all of the fine style of this place, though, it is not the sort of kitchen that seems to be focusing on those sorts of fussy details.
Aside from one entree of crabcakes, which were mushy and bland and paired with a jicama slaw that somehow managed to be equally bland and almost as mushy, the dishes I was served here seemed to be cooked exactly as they were intended. That’s to say, familiar and pretty good. If this newspaper delivered reviews in half stars, I might be inclined to award them one and a half. On the other hand, I’m inclined to inflate that grade simply because the room is that pleasant to sit in.
By some margin, the best option here is a rich, spicy bowl of shrimp and grits swimming in red gravy. There are spicy flecks of chorizo sausage and peas floating with tangles of rich, falling-apart tomatoes. The grits are creamy but firm. The deveined shrimp are meaty but still tender. It is a distinct, regional recipe, one full of personality and verve.
Of course, you could always order the tuna nicoise salad, which arrives in a heaping pile of spinach, anchovy, boiled egg, fingerling potatoes, olives and seared, cool rare tuna. On the night that my companion ordered one for dinner, I asked what he thought of it. He struggled for a moment to find something unusual or distinct to say about the salad before eventually admitting, “It’s, well, exactly what I would expect.” That, I’ve found, is what one can expect at Public Kitchen & Bar.
Public Kitchen & Bar
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: New American
Service: friendly and casual
Best dishes: shrimp and grits, crispy gator bites, spinach dip, pimento cheese burger
Vegetarian selections: salads and pasta
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Parking: free lot and valet parking
MARTA station: Buckhead
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: 3500 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-900-7799