- By Wyatt Williams For the AJC
It is Tuesday night in Sandy Springs and the valet line for Kaiser’s Chophouse is stacked. The cars arriving for dinner seem to have all been driven here directly from the car wash. In the night glow of streetlights, the paint shimmers and the chrome gleams, though none quite as much as the three cars parked right in front: a black Maserati, a blue Bentley and a white Porsche. The valet guys have angled them in a row pointing at the restaurant’s front door, as if to answer a question. If you’re wondering what sort of restaurant Kaiser’s Chophouse is, it is a Maserati-Bentley-Porsche kind of place.
Once you’re inside, the host will ask your last name, even if you don’t have a reservation. For every table at Kaiser’s, a last name is written on a long white paper ticket, a talisman of old fine restaurants that I rarely encounter these days. It is one of several touches that makes Kaiser’s feel years more seasoned and practiced than a few months old. Kaiser’s is that rare new steakhouse that feels like an old steakhouse. This is perhaps the restaurant’s best quality. Either that or the spinalis.
Spinalis, as you may know, is the muscle that wraps around the larger, central eye of a rib-eye steak. For many, that thin exterior strip, both rich in fat and notably tender, can be the best few bites of that steak and gone too soon. But spinalis can also be filleted from the larger primal cut and portioned in lengthwise steaks, the same direction as the long muscle fibers.
This somewhat novel cut only occasionally makes its way onto steakhouse menus, less often, I imagine, because it requires the expensive dismantling of what would otherwise be the most popular steak on the menu. When the kitchen at Kaiser’s delivers it to your table — seared, cut into strips and sitting in a small pool of rich pan sauce — there is no doubt the added expense and effort are worth it. The spinalis is a decadent experience, especially if you have grown tired of the familiar steakhouse options.
The Kaiser in this case is Peter Kaiser, a native of Liechtenstein who earned his stripes cooking in the Michelin-starred kitchen of Chez Max in Zurich before immigrating to Atlanta in the 1980s. He held long positions with the Buckhead Life restaurant group and later helmed the executive corporate chef position for Tom Catherall’s Here to Serve restaurants. Were it not for Catherall’s messy divorce and the subsequent, rather spectacular dissolution of the Here to Serve empire, it is possible Kaiser may never have opened a restaurant of his own. But Here to Serve did implode and Kaiser has opened a restaurant of his own, albeit with some investment and help from his old friend Kevin Rathbun, one of Atlanta’s most successful steakhouse restaurateurs.
At first glance, Kaiser’s bears some resemblance to Rathbun’s style. Rathbun’s steakhouses are among the only in town where spinalis can be found regularly on the menu. Yet, I’d venture to say that similarity is mostly just because steakhouses tend to look alike. The Rathbun style has long been colored by the romance of tucking away an intown restaurant in an unexpected, nearly hidden locale. I can’t imagine Rathbun ever plopping a restaurant in a shopping center between a Lowe’s hardware store and a Whole Foods grocery, as this one is. On the other hand, it is exactly the sort of thing I imagine Tom Catherall doing.
Kaiser’s, in many ways, resembles the pricey, polished style of Catherall’s heyday. Along with the standard raw bar fare, the available crudo dishes include well-executed, familiar combinations, including yellowtail and avocado as well as hamachi in a ginger-ponzu vinaigrette.
The money shot here, though, is a plate of smoked salmon draped over ultra-crisp spears of potato skin. Between the smoky salmon and the crunchy potato is a velvety, creamy layer of chive Boursin cheese. Atop each were small dollops of salmon roe. Paired with a Paloma cocktail rimmed with smoky paprika, my date and I luxuriated in this dish. We wondered if Kaiser’s might be carrying another sign of the 1990s comeback: Could fancy potato skins be the next dish to be ironically revived?
I have to admit that my enthusiasm was slightly dampened by the salmon roe. The fish eggs were a fine match for the dish, that wasn’t the problem, but the menu had specified caviar. And the photos I’d seen, on social media and in promotional shots, had very clearly included sturgeon caviar, little black piles of luxury that can push a bite into the next stratosphere of flavor.
It had the slight air of a bait-and-switch. But perhaps that suspicion is entirely unfounded. Perhaps the kitchen was simply out of sturgeon and had to substitute salmon.
Even when the kitchen is technically flawless, there can be underwhelming moments. A recent fillet of halibut, a special for the night, arrived atop a small bed of creamy white sauce with a wedge of lemon. Sure, the fillet was cooked to an exacting golden brown crispness, but it was also the most boring $30 I’ve spent on a piece of fish in recent memory. Sides, like a bland plate of Gruyere-topped spaetzle or a dish of garam masala-seasoned cauliflower, were similarly unimpressive without being technically flawed.
That aside, it is hard not to enjoy yourself in these rooms. There is a rather lively and casual bar, a smaller, more quiet dining room, and a long, bustling dining room facing the open kitchen, all of which have been expertly lit and designed by the Johnson Studio. The poise and knowledge of every server I’ve encountered have been impressive. And on an otherwise rather expensive menu, there are a couple of deals to be had. The burger, topped with grilled onions and Gruyere, is a relative steal at $16. And the dry-aged drop-cut rib-eye, which is cut about as thin as you’d expect from a breakfast diner, is as impressively cooked as any other of the much pricier steaks on the menu and packed with dry-aged flavor.
Of course, I doubt anyone is driving a Bentley or Maserati to Kaiser’s for the budget special. It is a place that rewards dropping a little extra change. So much so, that I wondered one night if the cars were just a little bit of theater, a visual reminder of excess for customers walking in.
On my way out, I asked the valet guy if something like that was the case.
“Nah,” he replied. “That’s just how they roll in here.”