Rathbun Appetit

Art of the Meal

How do you explain the smashing success of Rathbun's, lauded by USA Today and Bon Appetit, and crowned by Esquire as one of the country's best new restaurants?





True-blue American chef Kevin Rathbun's secret is buried deep in his official bio: Aside from a mother and grandmother who taught him the importance of farm and dairy-fresh foodstuffs, Rathbun's formative culinary experiences also derived from "his father?a Kansas City jazz musician, [who] often cooked great BBQ for his musician friends and later had jam sessions in the basement."





Of course: Jazz and barbecue -- America's signature creative inventions, both defined by improvisation within a given vernacular. They explain everything about Rathbun's mastery of nearly every major American regional cuisine, from sous chef under Emeril Lagasse at New Orleans' venerable Commander's Palace to guiding light for inventive menus at the Buckhead Life Group's varied restaurants.





At Rathbun's, in intown Atlanta, the chef steps out for his solo. The Stoveworks' century-old funky industrial stage set is elegant and hip. I prefer the covered patio, with gently trickling fountain, and cutout ovals in the canvas screens that both absorb sound and allow you to spot your friends as they enter. (I also like the fact that no reservations are taken on the 45-seat patio.)





The food is engaging and smartly priced, and as meat-centric as you might expect of a Kansas City native. You can get away with several tapas-like "small plates," priced from $5-$7.25 (sambal-tossed fried calamari; Thai rare beef and red onion salad with kaffir lime); a "raw plate" or two, $5-$8.50 (cubed hamachi, or yellowtail tuna, with Asian pear and sesame; romaine heart salad with gruyere); entrees or "big plates," $14-$21 (wild sockeye salmon, toasted orzo and caramelized onion; pan-roasted cod, shrimp and mirliton squash ragout), or splurge on one of the "second mortgage plates," $27-$33 (lobster and roasted green chile soft taco; veal chop with sweet corn and gouda fondue).





The wine list changes weekly, and includes such great by-the-glass finds as Cristalino, a Spanish brut cava, and a bone dry sparkling rose (Laetitia, Arroyo Grande Valley, '00).





Begin with the soups, so rich and bold that only a bite or two of each will satisfy two people in the clever, three-demitasse-cup "1-1-1" sampler. Recently, that included cauliflower-parmesan; pumpkin; and spicy mock turtle with a dollop of dry sherry. The small plates hold exquisite bites of fried calamari and fiery sambal, tender shrimp with al dente fresh limas, almonds and garlic, or chopped romaine lettuce, with a crisp-fried rectangle of gruyere.





But the larger plates are what Rathbun's is all about, and these entrees represent a progression from everything that has gone before. The sea scallops "Benedict" are plump divers' catches, on country ham grits, with asparagus tips and spiced hollandaise. Sage-rubbed pork tenderloin medallions encircle wilted white cabbage, laced with cream and pancetta. The grilled bistro steak, cooked just to order, counters truffle-scented polenta. And the mortgage-busting crab-stuffed broiled lobster is topped with tender sauteed spinach. Just try to stop picking at it.





It's going to be hard to top all that, but dessert chef Kirk Parks manages, somehow. Let him pick four sweets for your table for a bargain $10 ? they range from the dense cube of Mexican chocolate mousse to the filthy rich banana peanut butter cream pie. Do not, repeat, do not leave without one of two great tawny ports, the Quinta do Infantado, 10-year, or the amber-auburn Warre's 20-year -- great with the Italian cheese tasting (robiola, freshlino, stagionato).





It's no wonder critics greet Rathbun's with a standing ovation, and his audience with repeat encores.





Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact her at gtcritic@mindspring.com.



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