It was New Year’s Eve. Adam Evans, the chef of Brezza Cucina at Ponce City Market, had planned the menu months in advance, and the planning was evident. My first sip of celery root soup, creamy like a French velouté and dotted with crisp golden croutons on top, made me sit up, startled. A frisée salad had French finesse, the bright chicory and crisped lardons tossed in a vinaigrette with just enough acid to cut the pork. Roast chicken came covered in a meaty porcini ragu rather than the salsa verde of chopped herbs and oil that blankets the one on the regular menu. What would be by any standard a very good fire-roasted chicken suddenly acquired Michelin-star elegance.
That elegance turned out to be the exception, not the rule. Evans may be the chef of Brezza, but he’s there to execute someone else’s vision: New York-by-way-of-California celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman. He would seem to be the perfect occupant of the space, even if he has no plans to be there himself. Waxman’s California-casual sensibility and his ability to transform edgy urban areas into places that attract sophisticates made him attractive to the market’s developers. Barbuto, his Cal-Ital restaurant in Manhattan, is in a former garage, with paned glass similar to the windows at Ponce City Market. Adele’s in Nashville is in a former auto repair shop, whose exposed brick walls also recall Ponce City Market. Both restaurants border on Spartan but still manage to evoke an under-control party atmosphere, and both menus go with the shirtsleeves feel: simple Italian dishes that always deliver more than you think they will—particularly his kale salad, which helped start the green tide, and that roasted chicken.
Does Brezza deliver, too? Hard to say. With a menu of standards that doesn’t vary much, execution needs to be consistent. But keeping track at Brezza was like watching a slide show where pictures go in and out of focus and pass by too fast. One night salads were sparkling and distinct, pastas served hot with just enough sauce and kick. On other nights—and I went five times—dinner was so sloppy and nondescript (faded salads, cold pasta with no al dente bite or spice) that I forgot what I’d eaten before the dessert menu came. Potato gnocchi were unseasoned, oily, lukewarm pillows that couldn’t compete with the roasted hen of the woods mushrooms that dress the dish, which at least tasted like something.
The contrast between that sparkling New Year’s Eve night and the other generally nondescript dinners is a byproduct of Brezza’s design, which is to keep the Waxman vision—which Evans studied for 10 days in New York while training at Barbuto—at the core. That vision starts with what servers say is the holy Waxman trinity of jw kale salad, roast chicken, and fried jw potatoes with pecorino and rosemary. The chicken, with tender flesh and crisp, fatty skin, is failsafe, though less interesting than Evans’s ragu variation. The kale salad, with an anchovy vinaigrette and breadcrumbs, was indeed a fresh change when Waxman brought it to greens-starved New York. But even with the local kale Evans orders, it’s a chore to chew. And the potatoes, hand-smashed into irregular but roughly tater tot–sized blocks, taste just of the deep fryer—all crunch and no floury flesh. Better to try the braised lamb shank, served on a bed of polenta and dotted with chopped black olives, pine nuts, and rounds of Calabrese peppers. It’s the most focused of the current entrees: the polenta not too creamy, the meat browned and beefy with actual chew, like brisket ends.
What refused to come into focus were the pizzas and pastas. Bucatini all’Amatriciana, which should be as failsafe as the chicken, is like a volume-cranked-down imitation of the soulful version found on the other side of the food hall at Bellina. Pizzas are technically well-made—tender, resilient crust; lightly melted burrata—but little more. None of the vegetables had the vibrant flavor and color of those I’ve eaten at Barbuto and remember still, like the roasted Brussels sprouts or escarole with chile that’s like something a beaming Sicilian grandfather might bring to your table.
Brezza’s menu is largely limited to a list that gives Evans little room to show his considerable skills, but when he does the dishes acquire some of that New Year’s luster. Anything with fish is a good bet: Evans worked at the Optimist, where Ford Fry encouraged his love of fish. Charred-outside, tender-inside octopus with yogurt that Evans ferments himself; delicate but focused crudos of gulf snapper and hamachi dressed with pistachio, fennel, and orange; a spectacular whole fried snapper with broccoli and calabrese sausage—you could tell his heart was here more than in the jw trinity, and it’s where plates picked up interest.
Evans also came up with a clever vegetable preparation that I’d order again and again: melting chunks of Japanese sweet potato with spiced butter. The subtle kicks of cinnamon and allspice, the potatoes themselves harvested at a farm near Athens, had me vowing to start buying more of this supposed nutritional powerhouse.
I’m happy to have reliable roast chicken available just a short walk from my new house, but I wonder how much more we could savor if Waxman let Evans loose and gave him the autonomy to design and personalize the menu. Atlanta has a history of greeting visiting celeb chefs with a loud meh. Evans’s mentor Tom Colicchio, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Emeril Lagasse all noisily moved to town and quietly folded their tents within a few years of opening. They likely assumed that their names alone would be enough to bring in customers. With Evans at the helm, Waxman, who is opening a similar restaurant in San Francisco under the same name, has the chance to break that streak. Evans may not have the souls of California and Italy running through his hands, as Waxman does, but he understands seafood and brings a set of skills that are more frankly French and elegant than those of his boss. Which is to say, a united philosophy and menu will make Brezza its own genuinely interesting restaurant. Given the wait for and investment in Ponce City Market, I think we’ve got it coming.
Good to know
This is the only restaurant in PCM that takes reservations.
675 Ponce de Leon Avenue
This article originally appeared in our March 2016 issue.