Bulli for Blais

Buckhead's idiosyncratic new eatery takes innovative, erratic cues from Spain

Wayne leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips. "And now," he said, "the piéce de resistance — a perfect ice cube with lemon zest and dried-caper butter served in a Welch's grape jelly glass."

I nearly spit out my caramel-garnished Parmesan froth, I laughed so explosively. The funny thing was that his prediction seemed utterly within the realm of possibility at Blais (268 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-231-2224). This long-awaited restaurant is named after Chef Richard Blais, whom foodies have missed since the closing of Fishbone, where he produced the city's best seafood dishes.

Blais, which is unlike any other restaurant in our city, clearly takes its inspiration from El Bulli, one of the world's most innovative restaurants located in Roses on Spain's Costa Brava. There, Chef Ferran Adria has developed a style of cooking that is culinary alchemy and has influenced chefs all over Europe. He transforms the ordinary forms of ingredients. Solids become liquids. Liquids become crystalline. The crisp becomes chewy. The gooey becomes powdery. There's little he won't gelatinize. The idea is to bombard the palate with 30 courses of small dishes of intense flavors and textures — all in unexpected combinations and occasionally served in weird containers.

Blais attempts the same at his theatrical new restaurant located in the old Peachtree Cafe building owned by George McKerrow Jr., who is one of Blais' owners. The building has undergone a major re-do by the Johnson Studio. It's all very sleek and dark with glowing lavender and red notes, and features the odd novelty of flat video screens that give you views of Blais and his staff at work in the kitchen. Ask for a table in view of a screen. After all, the menu boasts, "Within the soul of our kitchen beats the drum of hyper creativity."

Aight! Sounds good to me, bring on the $49 tasting menu. Just like at El Bulli, the waiter asks you at the outset if there's anything you refuse to eat. He tells you that you'll be receiving at least five courses. Don't believe him. You'll be getting many more, not even counting one amuse bouche after another that arrives at the start of your meal. He also informs you that there is at times a $75 menu of 31 flavors. That's one more than at El Bulli, but then El Bulli isn't poking fun at Baskin-Robbins. Blais is, if nothing, a comment on American cuisine.

You are not locked into the tasting menu, but it would be a shame to order a la carte and not get the symphonic effect, at least on your first visit. My overall judgment is that some dishes fly and some crash. Generally, the simpler they are, the better. Two white anchovies served in a tin with a few leaves of romaine lettuce in a Caesar dressing is clever and delicious. But compare that to El Bulli's golden "caviar" made of gelatinized porcini mushroom served in an Iranian caviar tin. Blais serves, as an amuse bouche, a vial of iced tea with little jellied ice cubes flavored with Meyer lemon. It doesn't work and I can't help comparing it to the hot peach and rose tea at El Bulli, which is served with a rose to sniff while you sip tea full of honey capsules that burst individually in the mouth. On the other hand, a layered nonalcoholic sangria, foamed by nitrous oxide, is highly memorable, as is a crispy little squid served with Tunisian harissa sauce. Tuna salad, served in a tin, is bland.

A luscious diver scallop big enough to cut into four pieces isn't well served by an almond puree and cranberry jus. But skewered grilled shrimp, served over a baby food jar of hummus, is true comfort. Turbot over spinach is drenched in an orange-rind emulsion that would have been totally intolerable were it not for the perky dried capers scattered on the dish. A cod cheek didn't marry well with chorizo and raisins.

The weirdest dish, very El Bulli and quite tasty, was a "pasta" of gelatinized seaweed served in a pool of carbonara sauce. I also liked the sliced duck breast served with pomegranate seeds, espresso butter and turnips, although the vanilla potatoes could have been otherwise seasoned. The largest plate featured Kobe beef and sliced tenderloin served with a Chinese spoonful of blue-cheese ice cream, which I couldn't bear. It was far too intense for the beef. Also on the plate were foie gras and some green beans.

Dessert? A Valrhona-style oozing c hocolate cake with saffron ice cream and totally flavorless cubes of beet jelly. We also sampled a marvelous Parmesan cheesecake with balsamic jelly and lemon-olive oil sorbet. The meal ended with big orange cubes of gelatinized Tang — kind of amusing but way too Tang-like. Again, compare that to El Bulli's kitschy but flawless peanut butter that you squeeze from a toothpaste tube.

I don't want to give the impression that I think Blais should be El Bulli. In fact, I would urge it to be less so. I'm not quite sure why a veteran of the French Laundry and Chez Panisse, whose work at Fishbone was masterful and almost romantic, is undertaking this kind of cuisine. I admire Blais' chutzpah and he must be nervous about creating a Bible Belt Bulli. But let's have more Blais and less Adria.

Here and there

What's the deal with Apres Diem's Salade Nicoise? It should be made with high-quality canned tuna, not dried-up fresh tuna, and it shouldn't require a treasure hunt to find a black olive ... .

I recently attempted to dine at Einstein's but gave up after a 20-minute wait turned into 45. The restaurant is still in renovation, so there are limited tables, but the completed dining room and bar nonetheless look fab. The decor has grown up. My friends and I toddled down to Joe's on Juniper where there was no wait for a table but an endless wait for food. I ordered a medium-rare Wisconsin burger and apparently received the hockey-puck burger instead.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or email him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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