First Look: The Luminary
A visit to Eli Kirshtein's new Krog Street Market eatery
Few, if any, Atlanta restaurants can rightfully claim the moniker of brasserie. In order to do so, a few traits must be present: relatively simple and hearty French fare, a mix of tablecloth finery and publike informality, an attention to draft beer, and an atmosphere of conviviality that comes from a closely packed crowd of diners and drinkers. By those measures, new restaurant the Luminary is right to bill itself as a French American brasserie.
When it opened in August, the Luminary became the first of what will be many diverse food offerings in the ambitious new Krog Street Market. Soon, stalls selling dumplings, sabich, charcuterie, and so on will be housed under a single warehouse roof. At the moment, it's just the Luminary and neighboring restaurant Craft Izakaya. Like Krog Street Market, the Luminary is a promising work in progress.
The Luminary looks the part of a contemporary brasserie, all shiny and new with plenty of white tiles and bright white wood. A lengthy bar and a smaller raw bar line the room. The layout calls attention to the drinks on offer and to piles of oysters set on ice. The high warehouse ceilings contribute to a cacophonous dining experience, so be ready to shout to be heard.
Executive chef Eli Kirshtein, of "Top Chef" fame and Richard Blais' tutelage, presents a rundown of classic French brasserie staples with a few tweaks and detours through the American South. For the crunchy fried brandade, catfish replaces the usual cod and pickled Vidalias accompany the dish. A recent pompano "amandine" featured pecans instead of almonds for a decidedly Southern bent. Kirshtein changes up ingredients based on the market. One night's buttery potatoes were replaced with celery root purée a week later. The seafood selections are frequently swapped out based on what's fresh.
Smartly attired bartenders in vest and tie staff the retro, brass-accented bar overseen by Ian Cox, formerly of the Wrecking Bar. A selection from the almost two dozen draft beers is a natural choice to accompany brasserie fare. The list sticks to the slightly Southern theme with local brews from Sweetwater and Orpheus in addition to Belgian brews including Brouwerij Verhaeghe and Bosteels. Cox's cocktails, ranging from classic to clever, also tempt. A boozy whiskey-based Boulevardier or Vieux Carré may feel appropriately French, but much of the list reflects a more light-hearted and refreshing mood appropriate to the waning days of summer. With cocktail names like I Feel Pretty, a Secret Girlfriend, or a Summer in Brittany, Cox is clearly out to set a mood of frivolity.
Brasseries are meant to be casual, relatively affordable, and (bien sûr) délicieux. The Luminary's brasserie staples hit the spot, whether it's the nicely salty and perfectly medium rare steak frites ($22) or the crunchy, cheesy, eggy-oozy croque madame ($15). The chicken liver mousse ($9) expertly blends country rusticity and city elegance, as does a lovely plate of amberjack filet over buttery and smooth potato purée ($23).
Great brasseries, though, make their names on consistency. After all, standards like steak frites and croque monsieur demand execution, not creativity. The Luminary exhibits the typical new restaurant jitters when it comes to the details. One weekend night, our water glasses remained unfilled for long stretches, multiple times. Our wine was missing in action 15 minutes into the meal. Our oysters were shucked a bit carelessly, not a drop of "liquor" served in the shells. And while we were thrilled to receive bread service at the outset of the meal, the perfectly soft triangle of butter flecked with flaky sea salt deserved a far better baguette than the tough pieces we received.
More importantly, the food temperatures ran awkwardly hot and cold. Were the braised leeks really meant to be cold and congealed? Were the lentils and crunchy cubes of carrots served alongside the funky and appropriately warm duck confit meant to be cold-ish, or cold, or lukewarm? We couldn't tell. A strange spin on gnocchi Parisienne managed to be very un-Parisienne. The gnocchi was dense; the substitution of cheese curds for the traditional Emmentaler made for a clumpy mess; and vinegary pickled mushrooms distracted from what should have been perfect comfort food.
These should be details the Luminary gets right, night after night. And with Kirshtein at the helm, I fully expect them to settle in to a more satisfying groove (the gnocchi appears to have been dropped from the latest menu). The one area that could use a more significant remix, though, is dessert. A plate of profiteroles had none of the pâte à choux crispness or thick-cream richness that define the dish. The thin, coffee-scented cream filling spurted out from the also-thin, doughy enclosures onto the table. Twice. And a salted caramel ganache tart was no tart at all, just a scoop of ganache with a thin crisp alongside it, served with an icy and gritty chocolate sorbet.
While I'm all for keeping things fresh and new, maybe the Luminary can embrace the brasserie ideal a bit more and not try to get too clever with the classics. After all, the combination of a good beer list, simple standards done right, an air of casual formality, and a buzzing crowd has worked for centuries. It's a blueprint that, despite its classic-ness, still gets people excited. Krog Street Market and the Luminary both have just a bit more construction to do to fully live up to Atlanta's eager expectations.