No. 8: Aria
When people ask for birthday or anniversary suggestions and I recommend Aria, they sometimes glaze over with a faraway look of recognition: Oh yeah, that place. Aria has plenty of well-fed loyalists, but it fell off the restaurant hot sheet a few years back when the New American craze yielded to the crusade toward regionalism. But vogue or not, chef-owner Gerry Klaskala is a great New American chef. He builds menus with familiar comforts—crab cakes, smoked salmon, pork shoulder, short ribs—and heightens them with a melting pot of seasonings and accompaniments. I’m always game for his improbably harmonious masterstroke, butter-braised lobster floating in a lagoon of black-truffle-scented mashed potatoes and a ring of broccoli puree. And Klaskala does salute the South with warm-weather entrees like herb-crusted sole with bacon, brown butter vinaigrette, and a succotash of white corn and lady peas.
Pastry chef Kathryn King has always been Aria’s secret weapon. Like Klaskala, she composes stunners that satisfy more than astound. She’s an artist with plums; I wait through winter for her upside-down black plum cake with lemon ice cream or the toasted lemon pound cake with vanilla-roasted plums and ginger ice cream. General manager Andres Loaiza, a polished charmer, directs a front-of-house staff with one of the lowest turnover rates in the business—several servers have been with the restaurant since it opened in 2000. On busy nights, the dining room takes on a glittery Buckhead frisson. If you’re seeking a more serene experience, consider booking the private room in the wine cellar. That’s where I’m planning to enjoy my birthday dinner next year.
In keeping with the restaurant's nature, this is a list that covers the gamut but revels in the finest American wines: restrained Russian River Chardonnays, Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs ripe with cherry notes, intricate California Meritages to match the steak au poivre or lamb shank.
Photograph by Alex Martinez