For Jason’s second birthday dinner, my parents took us out to Aria, a relative old-timer in the Atlanta dining scene (having opened in Spring of 2000, it has lasted longer than many a Buckhead hotspot). Mom and dad visited for the first time a few months ago, when a California vinyard they buy from hosted a wine tasting and dinner. They were so impressed with the experience that they brought us along to try out the regular menu.
I have to admit, my first (visual) impression of the restaurant wasn’t glowingly positive. There was a beaded curtain separating the small entryway from the bar, and the lounge-y area was rife with velour seating and candlelight. Then, the main dining room brightened significantly with white-trimmed walls, bejeweled animal sculptures (one reminded me of the infamous mirrored lynx from my uncle’s Nascar wedding, if that tells you anything about its tackiness), and a light fixture that was described by my mother as phallic but that reminded me more of a cross between a mosquito and a giant squid. The whole ambiance just screamed 1990s to me–plus, I appeared to be the youngest diner in the place, by a good 20-30 years.
Our server greeted us warmly, and we were off to the races with appetizers. Since we were ravenous, and since all of the starters looked so good, we ordered 5 of them. I opted for a creamless celery root soup, with black truffles and parmigiano reggiano. Yum! The texture and flavor were both great, and it was a light yet comforting way to start the meal. Mom went with warm lobster cocktail, butter braised with broccoli and truffled potatoes. The lobster was rich and flavorful, but I wasn’t sure I loved the presentation as a whole (the potatoes seemed out of place in the dish, though they were tasty on their own). Jason’s beet salad with goat cheese and tangerines was lovely and well-balanced. Dad’s tempura crisped prawns with spicy Asian slaw were perfectly cooked and had a nice kick to them. The whole table split an order of seared foie gras with Fuji apples and shallots, and oh. My. GAWD. So decadent. So delicious.
For entrees, I went with the pan roasted striped bass with leeks, sugar snaps, and fingerlings. The server indicated that the dish was very light, and he was spot on–almost to the point of blandness. Still, the fish was cooked perfectly, and there was just enough tarragon to keep things interesting. Mom’s seared sea scallops with lobster risotto and ginger were also cooked perfectly, and the scallops on their own were lovely, but there was something about the risotto that made it overpowering and a little unpleasant. I thought it was too much butter, but dad thought maybe it was the ginger. Speaking of dad, his zinfandel braised short ribs with celery whipped potatoes and parsnips was falling off the bone; however, in terms of flavor, it wasn’t my favorite version of the dish. Jason got the best thing at the table, in my opinion: pan roasted breast of duck with a crispy potato cake and braised cabbage. The duck was cooked to an impeccable rare-medium rare, and it had the most wonderful smoky flavor. There was some applewood bacon in the dish, so it tasted just porky enough without overpowering the duck and the cabbage. Fantastic.
I was too stuffed for dessert, but mom and Jason split the upside down caramel nut cake with walnuts, pecans, almonds, golden raisins, and malt ice cream. It disappeared fairly quickly, so I assume it was good. The server also brought some sorbets, and they were fine (but nothing to write home about, in my opinion).
Service continued to be friendly and accessible all night, and our waiter was right on when we asked him to bring us glasses of something white and dry from the wine list (a Sancerre is what he delivered, and it worked nicely with everything). With after dinner drinks and tip and all of the forementioned goodies, the total wound up to be approximately $100-110 per head.
Aria certainly didn’t elicit any culinary epiphanies from those at our table. It didn’t present us with any incredibly innovative dishes, dishes that we couldn’t get anywhere else. But I still walked out of the restaurant with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Why? Because quality ingredients plus thoughtful flavor combinations plus impeccable cooking plus attentive service equals an excellent dining experience.