According to a history published by the city of Atlanta, Ferdinand Dallas McMillan made his fortune in agricultural machinery before retiring in 1910 to focus on building his dream home. He had lived a long life since being born in 1844 and wanted a home in Atlanta built “as high into the air as I could.” He named this place Fort Peace and spent his final years there. The building continues to tower high on a hill above 15th Street, looking down at the glossy entrance to the Woodruff Arts Center and Atlanta Symphony Hall.
Fort Peace, which later became known as the Castle, is now home to the luxuriously styled new restaurant Rose and Rye. When I arrived there on a recent Friday evening, two large doors were propped open at the base of the building’s impressive granite facade. I entered into a dim room, not unlike the basement of a castle, and was led by the host up to an impressive, floating staircase that revealed a stylish dining room. It was lit as dramatically as a stage: a bright open kitchen facing a white ostrich leather banquette on one side and a row of palms on the other. Miniature chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The host led me to a seat at the cool, gray bar in the back of the room.
The menus here are brief — a choice of just seven small plates, seven entrees and a list of mostly Hemingway-themed cocktails — and suggest an erudite touch in the kitchen. Polenta is accompanied by a 62-degree (that’s Celsius) egg. The duck breast promises cauliflower two ways and a blood orange gastrique. It is hard to miss the wide-ranging, global influence of culinary style: chevre fondue, charred Tokyo turnips, guanciale, sambal, and so on.
This is the work of executive chef Lindsay Owens and chef de cuisine Anu Adebara, two women, it should be noted, in the altogether much too male-dominated world of restaurant kitchens.
I was impressed with a bowl of asparagus that arrived. The stalks had been pleasantly charred and cooled and topped with a tangle of shaved, pickled white asparagus nested on top with a sprinkling of potent, golden brown garlic chips. The chevre fondue that pooled in the bottom of the bowl was milky and thin, but still added a pleasant touch of richness.
Two seared scallops and a fried pierogi arrived on a rectangular slab. Each was dressed with a spoonful of pickled mustard seeds and a couple of guanciale lardons. It is an interesting dish, the acidic mustard clashing with the mellow scallops and salty pork, though the result is more fussy than satisfying.
Oddly, I had hardly begun to eat either of those dishes when a man in a suit came by to drop off my entree.
“That’s a little soon, don’t you think?” I asked. He told me it would be fine to just sit it right there on my table, and he dropped it off, anyway.
By the time I’d gotten around to it, the polenta had grown stiff and congealed. The precise temperature of that 62-degree runny egg had certainly gone cold. Yet, I was still impressed with the architecture of the thing. There were bright, acidic pickled mushrooms perched on top of a bed of pleasantly coarse polenta, which hid a bottom layer of wilted greens, smoky mushrooms, and lovely, al dente fava beans. It could have been great if it was still warm and the polenta hadn’t been deeply over-salted.
Even the salt in the dish might not have been such a problem if it had been paired with the right glass of wine. Unfortunately, I had some trouble getting the bartender’s attention, and even after I did, he never brought the glass of wine I ordered or even bothered to refill the glass of water that had long ago gone empty. I suffered through the rest of the meal, parched, until I finally flagged him down for the check. It was a deflating experience, the only time I can ever recall having spent a hundred dollars on a solo dinner during which I couldn’t even get someone to bring me a glass of wine.
It is disconcerting that the service here can be so unreliable, because the food coming out of the kitchen is much better than that.
The plate of steak tartare is composed of tender, hand-chopped chunks of beef, salty fried capers, and a raw quail egg perched in a spotted, cute shell. The crisp chips that come with it are just the sort of vehicle that makes me want to load up bite after bite. Paired with a frothy cocktail of bourbon, egg whites, Strega and rosemary syrup named for Hemingway’s story collection Men Without Women, it is a fine way to begin a meal.
The house drink, Rose and Rye, is similar to an Old Fashioned but warmed by a savory, generous pour of rose water. It would work well with the Brussels sprouts served here, which have been fried with an addictive blend of lime juice, sambal, currants and peanuts. That slurry of flavorful heat, sweet fruit and salty fried leaves is addictive. One night, at dinner in the posh dining room here, I was tempted to forget my manners and just lick the last of that sauce from the plate it had arrived on.
The complicated and beautiful presentations can be a combination of hits and misses.
A seared fillet of red snapper could not have been more perfectly golden brown, both crispy and moist. The bed of bamboo rice and ajo blanco that accompanied it, on the other hand, needed more of the Peppadew coulis hidden underneath to bring out their flavors. The white Tokyo turnips on the side, charred a touch black and glossy with oil, were stunning little bites.
I loved the scored, crispy skin on the ample medium rare duck breast I was served, but the cauliflower that accompanied it, both as a smooth green puree and in roasted purple chunks, was bland and unnecessary. They weighed the dish down. It was the bright slivers of blood orange, which gave the accompanying gastrique such a deep, bloody color, that pulled it all together.
If you catch a night when it is all going right, stick around and order the cotton cheesecake. Your server will deliver a black plate scattered with tiny flower petals, holding a round, rich cheesecake made light with an airy layer of cake at the bottom and a crisp layer of burnt honey at the top. You’ll want to savor each spoonful. In this comfortable, sturdy dining room with a dish like that, it isn’t so hard to imagine why McMillan named his mansion Fort Peace.
Rose and Rye
Overall rating: 2 of 4 stars (very good)
Food: New American
Service: inconsistent, needs work
Best dishes: charred asparagus, beef tartare, Brussels sprouts, duck breast
Vegetarian selections: polenta, salads
Price range: $$-$$$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Children: not ideal
MARTA station: Arts Station
Reservations: available online
Wheelchair access: no
Noise level: medium
Address, phone: 87 15th St. NE, Atlanta. 404-500-5980