Sometimes restaurants have a lot going for them—just not all going at the same speed. Last Word, in the Old Fourth Ward, is one of them. It’s trying to do a lot: bring craft cocktails to a level of housemade everything, just short of on-site distillation; build a menu reminiscent of the co-owner’s native Lebanon and also the Maghreb countries of Morocco and Tunisia (but not so reminiscent that people will feel like they need to be in the mood for Middle Eastern food); and include late-night plates to complement the ambitious drinks it’s serving the stream of new residents along this part of Highland. In its first three months, Last Word has managed to get much of this in motion, though none of it—save for the drinks—comes together at a level that would make it a dining destination.
Still, what warrants repeat visits is the energy. The room itself isn’t particularly striking, but it’ll be unrecognizable to those who recall the space’s previous occupant, P’cheen. The new interior features blue booths, dark cement floors, and bare walls—bare, except for the oversized color pictures of what turn out to be New York parties. There’s a long bar and light-wood tables with Nordic-looking modern chairs that seem vaguely midcentury. From the moment you enter, you get the idea that everyone in front of and behind the scenes is intent on making the place work, and doing it together.
The featured attraction is not the cooks in the semi-open kitchen, but rather the bartender vigorously shaking a cocktail beaker or taking a mallet to a cloth bag of ice. The spectacle is so sufficiently distracting—that mallet is hard to talk over—that you’ll want to order something, if just to know what the racket is all about. Those who don’t drink can get everything without alcohol, like the homemade tonic (which every barkeep has to make these days) and mild ginger beer. Both are sweet, though—made to be balanced by the bitterness of alcohol. Better to have ginger shaved and muddled with bourbon in the Arabian julep, served in hand-beaten copper cups that co-owner Bernard Moussa’s mother sent from Lebanon.
At a time when Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem” and “Plenty” cookbooks are bringing the mélange of eastern and western Mediterranean (plus Europe and Turkey) to every mildly adventurous cook’s kitchen, and Todd Ginsberg’s Yalla is bringing vibrant Israeli salads and hummus and new kinds of flatbread to mildly adventurous diners at Krog Street Market, you’d think that a restaurant on a stretch of Highland with hundreds of new rental apartments would be ready to challenge the adventurous urbanites attracted to the Atlanta BeltLine, practically next door. But the food is mostly mild-mannered and awfully white, though gratifyingly the crowd is not.
It’s probably no accident that the dishes I found most successful used some of Mother Moussa’s special deliveries. She sent, for example, two different za’atar mixtures—the lemony spice blend of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, cumin, and salt that’s addictive on pita with olive oil, in salads, really on anything. But neither Moussa nor co-owner Matt Booth, nor the two chefs they hired, Eddie Russell and Matt Palmerlee, get in your face with the Lebanese influence—and that’s a lost opportunity. For inspiration, Moussa took them to local Middle Eastern and north African restaurants, but says he ultimately let them run with their imaginations. So Lebanon appears as a lightly spiced thread through most of the dishes, which, alas, too often seem meh Med.
Labneh is simply strained yogurt, thinner than the ubiquitous Greek, but it’s hard to get right: tart but still refreshing, neither too thick nor too sour. The first time I tried it, it was both. But the second and third times, the housemade yogurt was appealingly sweet-sour, with olives, mint, and the milder of the two za’atar blends (an Aleppo version, heavier on the cumin). A clear gold-green layer of peppery Georgia olive oil lay atop the translucent white yogurt inside a half-pint mason jar, like liqueurs with different specific gravities. It was just thick enough to slather over triangles of toasted lavash, and good enough that the small portion for $6 was hardly sufficient for one.
Seasoning makes the other best dishes: the sweet-hot Tunisian-Moroccan cumin-garlic-ginger marinade chermoula on delicate but full-flavored Gulf shrimp—the spice mixture both amplified and softened by mixing it with labneh, turning the yogurt pink. (There was a bit too much fresh cilantro, a house favorite that, for my taste, isn’t very Mediterranean.) Sauteed cauliflower melted into the sauce, sweetening the already-sweet shrimp; it’ll only get better when Georgia shrimp are in season.
Young Georgia chicken was tender on its own, the skin expertly crisped in a hot pan; toum, a garlicky Lebanese sauce, further softened and flavored it, along with za’atar on the skin and a green jolt of salsa verde at the bottom of the plate that added color and freshness. The dark, peppery skin; the hot, moist flesh; and the cool herbal sauce make this worth ordering again (though the thin-sliced kale beside it was practically raw).
Not all the dishes were as balanced. Tagliatelle with mushroom confit and smoked Georgia peanut breadcrumbs sounded as if it would be smoky and nutty, with a browned crunch. Instead it was beige and bland and tasted of little besides salt. Homemade couscous, hand-rolled and steamed and fluffed several times, should be Last Word’s flagship made-from-scratch plate. But it was overwhelmed by salt and the too-hot, too-intense harissa, which needs the kind of rounding that the chermoula gets from the labneh. Long-braised lamb, the soft strings crisped in a pan, made the right burnt-ends contrast to the soft, yellow beads of couscous. So did tops-on carrots finished on a plancha, or flattop grill, which blackened them as if they’d been roasted in embers. Less salt and tamed harissa—and a return to the lamb I had the first time, which Moussa said was hard to get in quantity—would make this a destination dish.
Care showed in the details: Salads—like one with frisée, pear, and grapefruit—were bright and refreshing. Roast finger-lings with the chicken were browned, hot, and steaming-soft inside, worthy as a side on their own. Desserts continued the white, light theme: labneh with roasted dates and figs and lavender honey, plain ice cream—more ice milk, really—crunchy from toasted farro.
These dishes, like all of Last Word, are spare, earnest, and just different enough to set off the craft cocktails. But it’s the character of the place—that pounding mallet and the pleasure the bartender takes in it, the owner and servers who ask if you need something else—that will make me want to come back. And come the summer bounty, so will some colorful food—ideally in the colors of the Lebanese flag.
Rating ★ (good)
701 Highland Avenue
Good to Know
What’s in a name? According to owners Bernard Moussa and Matt Booth, Last Word comes from the name of a favorite cocktail.
This article originally appeared in our April 2015 issue.