February 22, 2013
First Bite: KR SteakBar
Wood-grilled meats, house-made pastas & edgy appetizers are on offer at this bonhomie Buckhead spot by star chef Kevin Rathbun
By Nancy Staab
Rejoice: Buckhead finally snags a Rathbun restaurant! Don’t miss the luscious bone-in grilled lamb chop agrodolce; a salty, sexy, slithery tagliatelle nero with bottarga; and subtle sweets that don’t cloy. But be warned: Kevin’s gone a bit edgy with his newest menu of “fifth cut” meats and some extreme (for Atlanta) appetizers.
Master chef Kevin Rathbun is a bit of conundrum. Whereas most chefs would plop their ambitious, expense-account eateries with “second mortgage” plates in tony, affluent Buckhead, Rathbun’s contrarian personality is revealed in his choice to locate his swanky modern American restaurant Rathbun’s and his even more plush Kevin Rathbun Steak in raffish, artsy-funky Inman Park. You even have to pass through graffiti-splashed Krog Tunnel to arrive at your destination, which, of course, only adds to the spot’s massive appeal. His popular tapas spot, Krog Bar, is also located in Inman Park--- though that’s a more obvious fit for the neighborhood.
And it seems Kevin has been taking note of the burgeoning food scene of various edgy, up-and-coming chefs in his Inman Park/Edgewood Avenue nabe. Whereas his two primary establishments are insanely popular for their modern takes on American comfort food and classic steaks-and-sides (short rib agnolotti, Maine lobster soft taco, sea scallop Benedict, ribeye steak Diane, spinach salad with hot bacon dressing, jalapeno creamed corn), his newest menu at KR SteakBar is rife with what he terms “fifth cut” meats. Think: tripe served on crostini; beef tongue with radish and olive oil pudding; a spicy, zesty lamb’s heart tartar “caponata;” sweetbreads with turnips, chard and agrodolce; and Mediterranean heads-on grilled sardines with fennel, pine nuts and saffron.
These are menu items that one might expect from renegade chef Robert Phalen at One-Eared Stag or Westside nose-to-snout eatery Abattoir! Meanwhile, KR SteakBar’s black-as-night, squid ink Tagliatelle Nero with Calabrese Chili and Bottarga vaguely recalls the famous black spaghetti with Calabrese sausage and rock shrimp that another rock star chef, Bruce Logue, made famous at his former post La Pietra Cucina.
What is so cool about KR SteakBar is that it represents master chef Rathbun, an Iron Chef America victor (take that Bobby Flay!) still wanting to challenge himself and flex his culinary muscles. His establishments have been lauded by countless critics and press alike, he’s earned tons of culinary accolades, but rather than rest on the laurels of his considerable past achievements, this is Rathbun saying, “Hey, I can still cook with the best of them and match those scrappy up-and-comers point-for-point, with my own edgy, flavorful, whole-animal cuisine.” So, while Rathbun has finally come to Buckhead, after years of begging from his fiercely loyal patrons, it’s as if he’s saying: “All right, I will come to Buckhead. But on my own terms. You will get the lamb’s heart and you will like it!” (And we did.) I am exaggerating, but that’s the impression formed from an initial visit to KR SteakBar on opening night Wed. Feb.20. (Sampled menu items are boldfaced).
To be fair, the “edgy, hipster” portion of the KR SteakBar menu is mostly relegated to the appetizers section of the menu. The other sections devoted to salumi, sides, pasta and proteins are pretty straight-forward-- but the appetizers seem to set Rathbun’s new tone at KR. Should you not like to challenge your tastebuds, you can easily sink your teeth into more conventional fare like a ribeye with aged balsamic and herbs; rapini with cream, garlic, chili; a slightly runny yet delicious polenta marscapone, pappardelle Bolognese or a carbonara-like spaghetti with guanciale, black pepper and egg. But for the foodie-hipster/ extreme eater/ food blogger set, KR SteakBar has it covered!
Asked about his “push-the-culinary-envelope” menu for KR SteakBar, Rathbun responded: “Well I always like to be a leader not a follower. This is not Maggiano’s…and I think that’s a good thing!” Chef Rathbun divulged that with KR SteakBar he is introducing “a new take on Italian food that is very New York-driven.”
Case in point: Executive Chef Chris McDade , who was recruited from Maialino, a New York City trattoria that specializes in rustic Roman food. And Rathbun, himself, checked his sizeable chef reputation at the door, to do a humble staging at one of NYC’s premiere Italian restaurants Del Posto, from the Bastianich clan, prior to opening KR. No red sauce and gummy pasta here. At KR SteakBar the authentic pastas are made in-house and each pasta dish can also be adapted for gluten-free diners using corn and rice-based pastas as a substitute. We sampled the Farina Arsa (toasted wheat) Orechiette with Rapini, Sausage and Garlic and the Tagliatelle Nero with Calabrese Chili and Bottarga on opening night.
The orechiette was tasty, but the Tagliatelle Nero was an almost-sinful delight. Maybe it’s the pleasure of consuming dramatic, black-as-night pasta, or the slippery, sensual lengths of the perfectly cooked tagliatelle strands themselves. On second thought, the dusting of dried yellow bottarga (fish eggs) with its primordial of-the-sea saltiness and the spicy red Calabrian chilies add the ultimate sexy notes to this dish.
The proportions for KR’s dishes (entrees, pastas, appetizers and sides) are perfectly designed for sharing for two. This can be a bit problematic if you have a different sized dining party, but deal with it. The proteins are more diminutive in size than those expense-account steaks at Kevin Rathbun Steak and fit in with today’s more healthy approach to dining. The woodfire-grilled steaks at KR are sourced from famed Allen Brothers in Chicago, and the servings are approximately the size of a stack of cards. The ribeye had a great char to it, but it would have been nicer had it been served medium-rare, rather than delivered, unasked, at the medium temperature. Other than that, service was impeccable and unobtrusively pleasant.
There are other proteins like a half-chicken, swordfish, or a light, flavorful, wood-fire-grilled scallops with heads-on shrimp and salsa verde on the menu.However, by far, the star entrée that we sampled was the lamb chops with agrodolce and onions. The two bone-on chops were succulent, tender, and perfectly cooked to a medium-rare. I dare you not to gnaw on the bone in public! A similar agrodolce or balsamico— more vinegary than sweet-- garnished an appetizer of charred lettuce and mushrooms. A side of cabbage with pork belly and anchovy sounded promising but the anchovy drowned out the porcine flavors. We will have to return to sample the raddichio with ham and aged vinegar; the shell steak with espresso and horseradish; Trenette pasta with clams, white wine and parsley; and the sweet breads with turnips, chard, agrodolce. And though you may already be consuming carbs in the form of earthy bowls of pasta, don’t miss the complimentary focaccia bread with a nice salt-crunch surface.
Dessert at KR SteakBar turned out to be a happy revelation. February is a challenging month for pastry chefs that like to work with seasonal ingredients, but the lavender-scented panna cotta and the light ricotta cake with sorghum and Florida strawberries sung like Summer on the plate.
The desserts were perfect endings to meat and pasta-heavy repasts in their subtle, not-cloying sweetness. Pasty chef Paul Weston hails from Rathbun’s other restaurants but competed against five other pastry chefs to earn the slot at KR Steakbar. Weston says he looks forward to adding seasonal fruit items to the dessert menu in spring.
The décor of KR Steakbar was fashioned by The Johnson Studio, who designed Rathbun’s other attractive, handsome, man-caves. Like Rathbun’s other establishments, this one is equally rugged, handsome, warm and modern. Think: a 50-seat bar consisting of Michelangelo marble; plenty of wood accents, cozy wooden booths; oxblood leather chairs in the lounge; cool industrial light fixtures; and a sexy, curtained, semi-private dining nook for a few lucky guests overlooking the open kitchen. We hear there’s also a charming, black-and-white illustration of a bovine in the bathrooms.
On opening night the joint was teeming with a congenial mix of chic ADAC professionals (the restaurant is located within ADAC West), corporate types, local Peachtree Hills denizens, phone-snapping media types, and plenty of young men in spiffy blazers with their dates. I envision that KR SteakBar might easily become a power-watering-hole-in-training for those who, when a bit older, will frequent the likes of Chops.
Edgy menu items ensure that the joint will also get its share of culinary-seekers famished for a sophisticated eatery in Buckhead. And with few dining options in Peachtree Hills other than Paul’s or the Tree House, Rathbun’s choice of location is genius.
Loungy tunes in the bar area; a craft-cocktail program; a hefty, mostly Italian, wine list (try the Nebbiolo) and capacious patio with fire-pit ensure buzzing happy hours and late-night scenes to come.
The cocktail menu is extremely edited at present, with about five classics on the menu, including an Americano, Negroni and Toronto (Rye, simple syrup, Frenet Branca, bitters). We suspect that head barkeep Tres Bullard will add to the repertoire once the bar finds its rhythm. Trace was recruited from hipster culinary haven, Top Flr, and has a preference for obscure, small-batch liquors and house-made ingredients. The Sophia cocktail, currently on the menu, may be a hint of where he will be going. This refreshing mix of Bitter Truth apricot liquer, Bombay London dy gin, vanilla white pepper syrup, lemon juice and Prosecco, served in a flute with a lemon twist, was refined, but with a feisty kick from the vanilla-white pepper flavors that also rimmed the glass.
Finally, stay tuned for one of chef Rathbun’s promised “beasts feasts”--a whole–animal roast on the patio, once the weather picks up—sure to be a welcome culinary throw-down in sometimes-staid Buckhead. Rathbun is a consummate chef, who also happens to know how to have good FUN. Likewise, KR SteakBar is seriously ambitious AND a congenial, bon vivant neighborhood spot that we are thrilled to welcome to Buckhead.
For info, menu and reservations for KR SteakBar visit: www.krsteakbar.com or 404.841.8820. KR Steakbar is open nightly for dinner, Monday-Sunday, starting at 5:30PM
Tagliatelle Nero with Calabrian Chili and Bottarga
Lamb Chop with Agrodolce and Oniona
Lavender Panna Cotta or the Ricotta Cake with Strawberry Sorghum