January 13, 2013
First Bite: Drew Van Leuvan’s Seven Lamps
A grown-up globe-ranging menu, eclectic drink list, hipster atmosphere & dollop of creativity characterize this high-low eatery
By Nancy Staab
- Photo of Seven Lamps Interior by Michael West
Craving a “New Deli” corned beef, “hot oysters,” Asian ramen, artisanal cocktails, a secret burger, sophisticated Mediterranean pastas, or clever small plates? This schizophrenic (in a good way) new Buckhead hotspot has you covered!
Just when I thought I was over cute food in jars and canned comestibles, pickled things on wooden carving boards, small-plates menus, not-so-secret off-menu burgers, industrial-rustic restaurant decors, and roasted beets dishes, to name just a few of the prevalent food trends that seem over-played, Chef/Owner Drew Van Leuvan challenges my prejudices with a restaurant that plays into all these trends and more. Yet somehow Van leuvan transcends these culinary clichés, to create a deeply personal, deliciously original restaurant. And, oh, what a beet dish he delivers at his new Buckhead restaurant—the ruby beets are smoked and roasted for flavor and tossed with medjool dates, house-made bacon jam and OJ fennel.
It’s hard to pigeonhole Seven Lamps Craft Food & Drink. Its schizophrenic menu ranges all over the place. There’s Asian hipster dishes such as lobster ramen and wild salmon sashimi; there’s French influences in terms of rilletes and duck confit; the Southern tradition is well-represented via the house-made pimento cheese, the sweet potato soup with sorghum syrum and apple brown butter, and the hot fried oysters. The bivalves are doused in a hot seasoning that were inspired, says Van Leuvan, by Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville (more on THAT dish a bit later). And of course, being a pasta professional, Van Leuvan has included several stellar pasta dishes with house-made noodles on the menu.
The ultimate impression of Seven Lamp after our first-bite sampling, was that here’s a chef who’s truly having fun and seems to be, well, unleashed. It’s a bit of the feeling I got when Sound Table opened, or HD1 even. And a chef having fun is a very good thing. Perhaps my dining companion summed it up best when he said…”This restaurant reminds me of something that could be found in Portland.” High praise indeed, with Portland leading U.S. cities as the poster-child of edgy, artisanal, hipster food. And speaking of hipsters, there were several twenty and thirty-somethings belonging to this sociological tribe packed into the oddly V-shaped restaurant space, almost to capacity on this random Tuesday night in January. The eclectic crowd, like the restaurant itself, defies pigeon-hole labels, but the GenX/Y and Millenials element was certainly present. Van Leuvan says that the local food community has also been immensely supportive of his effort.
No doubt co-owner/mixologist Arianne Felder also had something to do with the demographic. The fierce, blonde, star barkeep, last of Southern Art Bourbon Bar, has proved her mettle with a drink list that matches Van Leuvan point-for-point in terms of delicious and inventive but not pretentious libations. House-made is a recurring theme for this resto and likewise, Felder makes all her own syrups and tinctures. We will have to come back to sample the Fizzy Lifting Drink with Bacardi Solera, fresh lime, and interesting Sezchuan and black peppercorn syrup; the Four Roses bourbon float, or the festive “toasts” (read: flavor-infused shots). Each "toast" is accompanied with fun chasers like sea salted watermelon or sous vide pear. We did try the refreshing rathern than cloying Aphrodite cocktail, consisting of membrillo-infused Vodka (quince-vanilla-lemon peel) with pomegranate and mint.
And for dessert we just had to sample the drink whose reputation precedes it, the Crunch Punch concocted of Peanut Butter Capn’ Crunch-infused Redemption Rye with vanilla syrup, cream and nutmeg. Think of it as a lighter, boozier, grown-up eggnog with the faintest hint of your favorite breakfast cereal. This same playfulness and high-low experimentation characterizes Van Leuvan’s eating menu.
The CIA-trained Van Leuvan worked under greats like Guenter Seeger, Joel Antunes, Jean Louis Palladin, and Wylie Dufresne, before cutting his chops at Atlanta restaurants Spice, Toast, Tap and, most recently, ONE Midtown Kitchen. But the “Rising Star Chef” says the menu for Seven Lamps really came together after “he fell off the grid” and did a stint cooking at Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island—which seems to be a required pilgrimage for many of Atlanta’s top chefs including Shane Devereux and Tony Seichrist. Van Leuvan described stumbling from bed in the morning out to the garden to grow and pick the ingredients for the day’s meals. He says that the Seven Lamps menu gelled when he put it together with Felder’s drinks and that they both agreed that they wanted their new collaboration "to have a bar-like feel but not just be a bar.”
The V-like space wedged into a location next to Tootsies at Shops Around Lenox is intimate and masculine with a sleek combo of glass, wood and metals for that industrial-rustic look that’s currently so in vogue. Wooden shelves sport jars and barrels of hand-crafted preserves and house-made pickles, sauces and garnishes. The kitchen is open. The whole handsome look was done by an AIA designer. A lovely outdoor patio awaits the permit for a fire-pit. Most of the eatery's rough-hewn, reclaimed wooden tables are communal, so get ready to cozy up to your new best friends as you survey their small plates to decide which to order yourself. There’s something for everyone on this globe-trotting menu: the requisite lobster roll; the “ new-deli” trend for Jewish noshes like a corned beef brisket sandwich—but with trendy Asian Kimchee slaw on top; sashimi of wild smoked salmon with navel orange, grapefruit, avocado, horseradish; wood-grilled hangar steak; adventuresome small-plates; and last but not least, a “salted, cured, and whipped” portion of the menu featuring fine things to graze on like La Quercia prosciutto.
The lunch and dinner menus change often and with the seasons, so be prepared to find that lobster ramen you were craving replaced by an equally savory soup with braised rabbit legs, crisp pork, butternut squash and egg in the mix.
This Rabbit and Pancetta Broth was perhaps the best dish of the night: savory, substantive, homey, fortifying and flavorful. Comfort food at its best. And a clever Southern play on Asian ramen.
Other dishes we sampled: an amuse bouche wooden board with pickled things, sea salt and butter-dipped radishes and an anchovy mustard; caramelized seared scallops with pork belly in an earthy/autumnal sauce of mushrooms and braised chestnuts; golden potato zeppole reminiscent of slightly sweet hushpuppies that were hollowed out at the center and filled with warm potato crème and green onions; and mixed oysters on the half shell with their own little vials of house-made hot sauce (barrel-aged 30 days) and mignonette.
A dish that’s called “hot oysters” on the menu has been a hot seller—the bivalves fried and spiced in a cayenne mix akin to the legendary Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville. The oysters are then piled high on house-made white bread with bread-and-butter pickles and a dollop of perhaps the only NON-house-made ingredient in the whole restaurant, good ol’ Duke’s Mayonnaise. The result is a divine version of late-night hangover food. It’s fried, slightly salty, packed with definite heat, and mellowed out by the white bread and creamy mayo.
Not surprisingly, Van Leuvan excels at the pastas (having once owned his own pasta company), whether the piquant tangles of tagliatelle with Sapelo Island clams, Andouille, jalepeno, soffrito, asiago or the more decadent potato gnocchi with baby spinach, gorgonzola and the slightly unexpected addition of roasted d’anjou pear and crumbly bits of gingerbread. “This smells like Christmas in a bowl,” said Van Leuvan when delivering this fragrant dish to our table. Indeed. The sweet-savory dish could easily have served as my dessert. But my companion had his eye on the Baba au Rhum and I had to oblige. Van Leuvan also has a pastry background and was opening pasty chef for Trois, so his bronzed, domed, baba au rhum was a thing of beauty—with the faint flavor of vanilla, syrupy French Toast and served with a dollop of white chocolate ice cream.
On a return visit we also sampled the Sicilian pistachio macarons filled with savory mortadella mousse; a black linguine with a hearty white bolognese of braised rabbit that might have been enhanced with fatter noodles to support the heavy bolognese but otherwise quite toothsome; and a divine tortellini stuffed with lemon and ricotta and served with beet greens and lemon broth that was the essence of spring. While our dessert was not quite the essence of spring, more Christmas-like in character, we still must recommend the wonderfully moist and spiced, warm figgy pudding with sticky toffee and Fernet ice cream.
With the local food critics having already swarmed Van Leuvan’s small resto and the dining room filled even prior to those, no doubt, glowing reviews to come, it’s just a matter of time before Seven Lamps goes viral. (Bon Appetit editor and Atlanta native Andrew Knowlton also paid a visit to Seven Lamps this January, where he tweeted about the shaved porchetta with oj fennel, egg, tomato sauce and the pistachio macaroons stuffed with mortadella mousse.)
Seven Lamps certainly fills a lot of needed niches in the Buckhead market, which has been a little lacking in modern, small-box, artisanal and chef-driven hangouts. After all, Inman Park and Westside can’t have ALL the fun. And though some of Van Leuvan's and Felder’s food industry cohorts might have raised eyebrows about their choice of a Buckhead location, the fact that top chefs and restos like Rathbun’s KR Steakbar and two upcoming Ford Fry ventures have made the bold move to Buckhead---not to mention Tomo, F&B Bistro (from the FAB brasserie people), proves that even uptowners have a taste for quality food and that Van Leuvan is way ahead of the curve.
He is surely a ahead of the curve with his Seven Lamps menu: taking every cliché food trend and making it brand new again with a bit of whimsy, fun, inventiveness, originality, skill, and of course, deliciousness.
Seven Lamps Craft Food & Drink, open for lunch/dinner/late-night, 3400 Around Lenox Road at Shops Around Lenox, 404.467.8950 or www.sevenlampsatl.com
MORE PHOTOS OF DISHES BELOW COURTESY OF SEVEN LAMPS.