Last night, I had the pleasure of hitting Wisteria with CND. Unfortunately for Wisteria, the majority of the enjoyment was the company I was in and not the food I was served. Part first impression, part quick hits, this was my first full meal at Wisteria and my first visit of any kind in over a year. As such, I’m not really in a position to comment on qualities like consistency of food and service. Still, I think this restaurant experience is worth noting.
Wisteria is an 8-year-old restaurant backed by a skilled chef/owner, high praise from the community, and several “rewards” (including a GA House resolution – I shit you not). Chef/owner Jason Hill is a longtime member of the Atlanta community. Though I’m not sure where he hails from, Hill was working at Pano’s & Paul’s by the time he was 17.
Now he finds himself running Wisteria, a single room, squared shaped restaurant located in the no man’s land strip of N. Highland. While the restaurant is most often identified as a part of Inman Park, it equally as close to the heart of Little 5 Points and the southern tip of Virginia Highlands.
The space itself is very well thought out. A brick wall dominates most of the restaurant while a large wood bar sits up against it pretty much in the center. Meanwhile, brown bar stools play nicely with their shorter brethren that line the two dozen or so tables in the space. White table clothes help to create a soft, neighborhood feel. Meanwhile, large windows accompany the entrance way. While the view across the street isn’t anything wonderful, the large windows help keep this place warm well into the summer nights. As the sun goes down, so to do the already soft lights. The dimming of the lights seems to push things directly into the “romantic dining” arena.
As many who have come before me have said: the menu is a focus on American cuisine with Southern undertones. Both of us found the selections a bit ho-hum. For a restaurant with this type of rep, I was expecting at least a handful of truly unique dishes. Instead, I feel like pretty much everything offered can be found on at least two or three other menus around the city.
Further to the point, I must agree with what CDN said. When you hit a place that’s as talked about as this, you kind of expect to see things on the menu that you can’t take a shot at while cooking at home. I’m not sure we found that at Wisteria.
For our appetizers, we went with a half-dozen Kumamoto oysters and the Kobe beef Carpaccio.
Some fifteen years ago, Kumamoto oysters mired in relative obscurity. Since then, they have seen a meteoric rise to the top of the half-shell trade. Originally from Kyushu, Japan, now many a grower here in the states produces these tiny little shell buddies. Such was the case last night, as ours came courtesy of Washington state. Downing an oyster is a true passion of mine. Though I forgo a lot of the tomfoolery that goes along with it, the truth is there are more similarities between wine and oysters than perhaps oysters and other shellfish. For now, let’s just settle on a description of what we had: six pale-cream color oysters with a mild, yet somewhat sweet taste. I didn’t even bother to add the cocktail sauce. Meanwhile, a squeeze of lemon really brought these home. While they were not shucked to perfection, I was more than happy to pay the $2.00/shell price tag.
Next up was the Carpaccio. Per the menu, we found arugula tossed in a horseradish vinaigrette covering the vast majority of the plate. Meanwhile, there was a good bit of aged parmesan to be found. Portion control was an issue with this dish (as it was with the rest of the meal). It seemed the majority of the food on our plate consisted of things that weren’t Carpaccio. I don’t have a whole heck of a lot to say about this. The Kobe beef lacked any really inspiring tastes and while the subtleness of the arugula and vinaigrette played well with it, I feel like that was more the result of my careful construction of a bite and not because of the way the dish was intended. Between CND and I, we polished off the beef, but there was a significant helping of arugula left on the plate.
The entrées were victim to disproportionate flavor balancing yet hidden beneath them was an understanding of solid cooking technique. The Molasses-rubbed pork tenderloin cam with a huge mound of sweet potato soufflé topped with a Vidalia onion, apple and walnut relish. Ultimately, it was hard to pick out the pork. While we were asked if we wanted our pork medium-rare (huh?), we got it medium well. It was just short of that, so it maintained a responsive texture and some juice. Meanwhile, the pork was trounced by everything else on the plate. The molasses rub was really a molasses reduction. Combined with the huge mound of sliced onions, apples, and walnuts, it was very sweet (shocking I know). Combined with the sweet potato “soufflé “ (which came out more like a mash), the dishes sugars just killed it for me. I can’t say I was surprised, I mean, between the fruit, the molasses, and the taters, sweet was where they were going. While everything was cooked well individually, the composite left me befuddled. Remember, this was a pork dish with sides … not the other way around.
In response to the sweet order, I took down some North Atlantic Skate Wing. Pan-seared in a little brown butter, the fish was dolled out over some corn grits and asparagus. Glad I could see my protein when it first arrived. Ultimately, this dish succeeded at what it set out to be. However, it didn’t really jazz me. The fish was cooked to perfection; however, I could see how some people might be uncomfortable with the amount of salt used. Still, texturally, the softness of the fish didn’t mix well with the grits. Individually, I appreciated everything, together, it fell apart. Whether or not the saltiness of the fish itself is a failure will ultimately depend on who is eating it.
Service throughout the night was prompt and courteous, though both CDN and I felt a little rushed at times. Ultimately, it was nothing to get our britches (or skirts) all bent out of shape over. I really appreciated the fact that pepper was offered AFTER we had a chance to sample both our apps and our entrées. That’s a pet peeve of mine. How the hell am I supposed to know if I want pepper without having tasted the dish?
Before I forget, magazines like Wine Spectator have made a note or two about the wine list here. They have a fairly strong wine list; though we didn’t have any last night – I did peruse the selections while I waited. It’s definitely worth at least some mild exploration and sampling.
So while the evening wasn’t a total bust, this place didn’t come anywhere close to the hype. The menu was a bit uninspired and the balancing of ingredients really held this place back. I think they do best as a high-priced neighborhood eatery. Still, future visits are not out of the question, but for $75 bucks for two apps and two entrées, I think they have a ways to go before I’m truly satiated by a meal here.