Patrick La Bouff is easy to pick out among the already-teeming crowds at the Lawrence. He's the guy with tousled hair somewhere between the color of straw and honey, usually wearing jeans and a bow tie, scuttling between tables and bodies and appearing everywhere at once. He may be sorting through the next wave of reservations on his iPad, surveying the dining room for empty seats, and then bussing a vacated two-top. There he is conferring with the chef in the kitchen, now behind the bar, now delivering appetizers, and immediately at the front again, greeting new arrivals. When he sees a familiar face, his normally taut smile relaxes for a moment into a lopsided grin.
La Bouff has the adamantine focus of a restaurateur on the brink of colossal success. The Lawrence—on the corner of Juniper and Eighth streets in Midtown, in a space previously occupied by two Riccardo Ullio ventures, Cuerno and then Lupe—is his first restaurant.
Executive chef Shane Devereux’s menu, a hodgepodge of American and international influences, comes off as a work in progress early on, but overall the place is well on its way to being the neighborhood hub that La Bouff envisions. He knows how to stage a scene. Over the last couple of years, he amassed a following with his Dinner Party Atlanta, a roving underground supper club held in colorful locations: an airplane hanger, a hair salon, a Georgia Tech basketball court, Piedmont Park, restaurants under construction.
His partner in Dinner Party and the Lawrence is Darren Carr, a debonair Londoner who co-owns Top Flr and the Sound Table, two of the city’s primo cocktail destinations that offer solid, globally inspired food menus. (La Bouff met Carr while waiting tables at Top Flr.) Devereux oversees the kitchens for all of these endeavors, but he’s spending most of his time at the Lawrence while the cooks crank up to speed.
Those who remember the spangly bar and the metal, anatomically correct bull statue at Cuerno won’t find any trace of such flamboyance. The space, dominated by somber gray walls and dark woods, is so neutral it borders on dull—strange, considering Dinner Party’s fanciful venues. A peculiar little platform was built in the back. It includes four tables as well as a sideboard displaying an odd assemblage of table clocks that looks like a collection Salvador Dalí and Sherlock Holmes would have accrued had they gone antiquing together. Aside from a few such quirks, the dining room is an unassuming backdrop that relies on the energy of the throngs to infuse it with life.
Fortunately the vibe gets lively pronto with Eric Simpkins as beverage director. Simpkins—who trained at the Pegu Club, one of New York’s booze standard-bearers—helped jump-start Atlanta’s cocktail revolution when Midtown’s now-defunct Trois opened in 2006. On my visits the alcohol program was just getting under way, with promises of artisanal gins galore and a long list of classic and modern cocktails ahead. His blushing Lady Lawrence (vodka, cassis, lime, ginger, soda, and lavender mint tea, a signature Simpkins ingredient) is a coquettish sip of what’s to come, and the man makes the most balanced, dangerously easy-to-gulp Sazerac I’ve tasted in the city.
I want to munch pig ears alongside these drinks. Sliced to the thinness of potato sticks and fried into a crisp mass that resembles a miniature tumbleweed, this porky snack shows the kitchen at its encouraging best. Elusive spices—fennel salt, cumin, star anise—keep the flavors provocative. It earns its place as the first dish in the "bar bites" section of the menu, which also includes small, medium, and large plates.
The descriptions read entertainingly, with lots of kicky ideas inspired by Southern, European, and Asian cuisines that add up to a next-generation snapshot of New American cooking. But the Lawrence’s food feels more ambitious than what’s served at Top Flr and the Sound Table, and Devereux and his crew have some growth edges, particularly when it comes to entrees.
You could happily fashion a meal out of the smaller plates. Start with the golden rice porridge, a few spoonfuls of risottolike creaminess speckled with rye and marjoram (glad to see this gutsy herb used to smart effect) and crowned with a dollop of feta. I could eat a quadruple portion of this stuff and call it a night. Parsnip and green garlic soup tastes the way farmers markets smell in the spring: earthy and sharp and invigorating. Pork rinds appear as a discordant texture pop in an otherwise soothing plate of gnocchi scented with fennel frond pistou (a pesto made without nuts); these ephemeral dumplings don’t need crunchy contrast.
The kitchen incorporates spices and herbs in liberal, compelling ways. The sweet warmth of Thai Massaman curry intensifies a buttery bar bite of small potted shrimp. Fresh curry leaf permeates smoked tomato sauce under a flounder fillet with the fragrance of South Indian cooking. Cilantro leaves and stems lend their assertiveness to jazz up lackluster fried tofu logs (more than a scant dribble of chile oil would help as well).
Cilantro also joins tomatillo salsa, pickled shallots, and crumbly Cotija cheese atop corn tortillas scattered with duck tongue carnitas, which look a little gnarly but are so wonderfully delicate in flavor that the other ingredients almost bulldoze over them.
Two efforts need to be rebranded. I melted when I spied spoonbread among the small plates: That Southern comfort, essentially a cornmeal soufflé, doesn’t get the adoration in restaurants it deserves. But Devereux adds corn kernels, which ruins the consistency and technically turns it into what many Southern natives would recognize as corn pudding.
A rabbit schnitzel main course, while being a clever idea, should really be labeled "chicken-fried rabbit." The morsels are cut into pieces, and the batter is too sheer; true schnitzel relies on breadcrumbs for its satisfyingly nubbly surface. And the kitchen plops a swampy garnish of shaved fennel, celery, and charred tomatoes on top, all but guaranteeing the rabbit’s crust goes mushy unless you mow it down in speed-eater style.
Similar miscues, from minor to grievous, mar other dishes: Tender pork cheeks with Brussels sprouts and beer jus need a dash of mustard or something similarly piquant to lift the flavors. Bland stuffed poussin could use a funkier whiff of the foie gras butter mentioned in the description. The dried cod used in the "fish sticks" need more soaking time to leach out the salt; those things are sodium bombs. And I trust that after the kitchen acclimates, it will lend more thought to desserts: Cutesy cakes in tiny glass jars passed their trend expiration date almost two years ago.
Harsh? Maybe I expect a lot from this crew. Top Flr and the Sound Table are two of my favorite hideouts, and I find the food more consistently on-point at both of them. And I know—given the owners’ ambition, the hospitality that La Bouff delivers, and the bar program already in place—that the Lawrence will be a sensation. But in the blur of popularity, I hope the players don’t settle for pumping out food that is capable of delighting but can too frequently disappoint. —Bill Addison
RATING * (good)
905 Juniper Street
HOURS Tuesday–Saturday, 5–10 p.m.
Photograph by Alex Martinez. This review originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.