Grovel … grrrr … harrumph. Why do you do it to me? You show so much promise, invoke so much potential, and yet … when it’s all said and done, I feel like I just gave $15 to one of those unmentionables hanging on the corner of Ponce & Blvd. At the end of the day, you’re left scratching your head and wondering what the hell you just spent your money on [Note to parents (who do read this from time to time): NO I’VE NEVER DONE THAT].
Point is, Livingston, the much praised haute restaurant that just opened, is a disappointment; and, it disappoints in a manner reminiscent of the Phoenix in ashes. Regardless of price point, cuisine, or vibe, there are two inevitable questions that I ask when thinking about food I just ate: 1) Did the restaurant succeed at what it attempted to do? and 2) Do I feel like my money would have been spent better elsewhere? Guess what my answers are for both of these questions?
I’m not going to spend too much time right now recapping what has already been said. If you want some background on the restaurant and to see some pictures, check out my quick hits post. Here, rather than address a single meal, I’ll talk about my general take on the experience of dining there (several meals in). Bottom line: keep walking (for now).
The renovated space has provided Livingston with high ceilings, ample seating, and a spacious bar. They maintained the revolving door, at least in theory. Instead, it serves as a wine showcase. Boy I hope those are dummy bottles. Even someone as laid back as I am with my wine will have a hard time swallowing something that has been baking in the Atlanta sun. Consider the fact that it is not temperature controlled … and you have a problem. If it is for display purposes only … uh … it’s out of place to say the least. Someone else will love it and think it’s cool.
Meanwhile, the execution of the interior is very appealing; though not without its problems. When one starts to closely analyze the décor do the faults start to show. Factor in some other oversights, and the experience I most commonly call “vibe” is a pretty succinct failure.
Stylistically, the restaurant does little to invoke the Southern heritage so prevalent throughout the Georgian Terrace. Chrome seems to find its way into the scheme more than one would expect. That’s not necessarily a fault; instead, it is just an observation. When set for four people, the tables are not big enough to house the placemats. The dishware is equally as problematic. Simple and white, the tray used to hold your 3-martini lunch is not large enough for the stemless glassware. Given the price point at this joint, those mistakes do little to help their cause.
The real kicker comes at night. In what seems like some odd tribute to Bruce Springsteen, you are almost guaranteed to be blinded by light if you grab dinner here. With the lights of the Fox Theater baring down on you, this failure falls entirely on the architecture. The vast amount of window space should have been allotted better. I know that it makes the restaurant seem bigger; and, it keeps the place crisp during the day … but you make your money at dinner. They should have taken more time to think this through. Dinner is the most important meal so make sure your restaurant looks its best at night.
There are no less than three entrances to the restaurant. The greeters stand is positioned near the interior of the hotel and there is a satellite location outside. I have seen too many people walk in, only to be left unattended. In what is a sign of much bigger problems, this one falls on the staff and the system (or lack there of).
Service seems susceptible to the same inconsistencies as everything else. Every server we have encountered here has been polite and kind. However, service itself flutters between competent and head scratching. Unfortunately, it drifts toward the later more often than not. I’ve heard more than one server make comments to customers that seem a little too friendly for a restaurant of this ilk. Other times, you’ll look up from your plate to see a smiling server standing just over you. Nothing is said and nothing is offered. Strange!
Mennie’s menu is a contemporary twist on southern cuisine. However, hotels rarely, if ever, give a flagship restaurant carte blanche. Bound by these shackles, it is no surprise that the menu falls flat. The dinner entrées hover around the $25 mark. For that kind of price, I’d at least like to see some envelope pushing ingredients. Doesn’t happen. The most “unusual” ingredient I found was rapini. Included on a hanger steak and short rib combo, the meat was cooked to order. Unfortunately, that request obviously went in one ear and out the other. More on that in a bit.
The Louisiana rabbit has showed strong for several foodies. My order was properly cooked, leaving the meat soft to the bite and responsive to my taste buds. Unfortunately, one of the other diners that meal had the rabbit. It was tough … waaaay tough. In order to get it from the plate to my mouth – I had to hack the meat with my knife. I felt like a lion with its prey when I went in for the bite. I had to tear the meat off the fork. Yikes! Execution issues aside, I wasn’t moved by the potatoes or speck ham on the dish.
Several other items fell victim to the kitchen’s antics. Caught up in the burger rage that seems effervescent around this city, Livingston has its own, predictably straightforward take on the hamburger. We asked for it medium rare and that it be split between the two of us. During the wait, the waiter dropped in to ask if we’d like it cut. Awfully nice of him, though I was curious to know why he didn’t seem to catch wind during the order. It arrived, meekly I might add, on the whole.
Our server came by, saw this, and without hesitation, sent it back to the kitchen to be quartered. That was a nice gesture. Problems arose from the beginning. We requested a medium rare burger … what we got was dangerously close to well done. Whether a service issue or an execution issue … that’s like ordering black and getting white.
Still, we persevered … after all … it couldn’t be thaaat bad. Guess again. Several large chunks of rock salt found their way into the mixture. Meanwhile, the meat was bland and lacked any distinct flavor other than dried and salty. The vegetables included (your basic tomato and lettuce) seemed closer to the bagged variety than to something fresh out of the fields. The bun was equally unimpressive. A better showing from the vegetables wouldn’t have helped save this titanic. The meat was shameful. Now we could have sent it back, but that’s just not how I roll. Besides, you glean as much information from a poorly executed item as you do from a good one.
I have also sampled the Georgia white shrimp 2x. Available as a dinner app or a lunch entrée, this is another titanic flop. The shrimp are underwhelming. They seem to lack any real flavor (frozen??) and were overcooked both times. Set on top of a fava bean puree, a touch of ham hocks, and some pickled Vidalia onions, it is clear Mennie wants to use the accouterments to deliver the meaning here. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happens. The flavors fall away quickly, leaving your palate with nothing to adhere to. The portion is seriously lacking in size. As a fan of smaller portions, the problem here is in the price tag (and the lack of execution). The flavor of Livingston’s food does little to justify high price point. An increase in quantity of food wouldn’t help either.
In the land of titanic flops, we also find the much sampled “3-martini lunch.” Before all you booze hounds get all excited … let me simmer you down. This is simply a $15 trio sampler offered up during mid-day hours. The trick here is that the dishes show up on a tray, each in their own stemless glass. Cute huh? The execution, portion, and flavors are almost certain to leave you disappointed (if not irate).
Nine different samplings have left me underwhelmed. Many of the items come dunked on top of a bed of shaved lettuce. My head sinks each time I think about it. The glasses are so awkward that the lettuce seems necessary simply to put the food at a reasonable and obtainable depth. Many times, it dominates the dish visually. Further, the lettuce turns items like the grilled hangar steak into a steak salad after a few bites. I could go on, but let’s not beat a dead horse.
I’ve found the Peekytoe crab salad to be watery, the hangar steak to be overcooked, and the duck croquettes to swimming in the puree. Most of the proteins have other problems, but you get the picture by now. Worse than the shrimp, the portion here makes you feel fleeced when you take into consideration the $15 price point.
The one saving grace for the restaurant could have been the Wellfleet oyster gratin. It’s overpriced, poorly portioned, and inconsistent. Split amongst five oysters (who does things like this in five?), the portion of oysters is perhaps the only menu item that approached a fair value. Still, at $2.40 an oyster, they need to get things together. When good, the oysters are impressive. Served over rock salt, peppercorns, and star anise, the deep yellow and green of the oyster gratin plays well with the rock garden below. Rich on the butter, they have melted on my tongue. However, when left on the cooking line too long, the bacon becomes dried out and the oysters themselves become rubbery mush.
It’s still early, very early, in the life of Livingston. But, for a restaurant trying to find the higher ground, they don’t get a lot of leeway with me. Service needs to be tightened up and the servers need a lesson in etiquette. Meanwhile, we all know that Mennie is a chef with a voice. He’s not a hack and he’s not out of his league. I don’t expect him to have the freedom here that he had previously; however, the mistakes here are unacceptable for a chef of his caliber and skill. None of this hodgepodge occurred at Abattoir, despite it’s nubile status. So it’s not like this is some unobtainable mystery. Sorry folk, you want to play with the big kids, you gotta learn to stick up for yourself your first day of high school.
At best, Livingston seems ripe for a Phoenix-esc recovery. At worst, it looks like a place that will suffer in mediocrity for a long time.
Atlanta Foodies On Livingston Restaurant
- EatItAtlanta On Livingston (05.08.09)
- Creative Loafing On Livingston (05.01.09)
- ChowDownAtlanta On Livingston (06.02.09)