If you didn't catch wind of it, Esquire Magazine named Ford Fry's latest, The Optimist, the "Best New Restaurant in America." If this is America's best, well then Amurica is facing more problematic times than the presidential debates would let on. I'm no longer standing on my chair screaming, "USA! USA!" Needless to say, my meal last night at The Optimist left me an enormous pessimist. In fact, it was the worst meal I've ever shelled out one hundred bones for. Putting my credit card down, I felt duped and knew that I could get much better meals in Atlanta for much less money.
If you're reading this review, well then you have certainly heard about The Optimist. You've heard about its gorgeous dining room and inviting bar(s). You've heard about the masterfully appointed lighting and stylishly tasteful touches. And all of these things are absolutely, in the fullest sense, true - the design team for this restaurant knocked it out of the park. And perhaps you've heard about the food. And that's where I'm taking a stand - if you heard wonderful things about the food at The Optimist, you heard wrong.
If I had to sum my meal up at The Optimist in one, brief phrase, if would be, "Nothing tasted like anything." The dishes overall were devoid of any flavor with the exception of a salty Monkfish entree. I adore the scope of the menu and had a hard time deciding on anything because everything sounded so interesting, refreshing or delicious. The service, I should mention, was flat - not particularly friendly and nobody ever came to check on us after we got our food.
The Optimist has fresh oysters on the regular and I feel like oysters are omissible from any review. The truth is, if you have a fresh product and a good shucker, oysters are going to be good. And they were. We also ordered the $9 cup of gumbo. With ample amounts of seafood (including a crab claw), I suppose they can get away with the price. The broth was nothing special, however, and lacked thickness and depth of flavor. The accompanying "Potluck" garlic bread was absolutely unnecessary and didn't even deserve to be called garlic bread.
The mains were the real let down of the evening. My monkfish entree, with a tomato broth, pickled fennel and hen of the woods mushrooms was simply not good. The monkfish was cooked appropriately but the accompanying broth tasting like nothing but salt with no tomato flavor. In fact, after a few bites, I couldn't eat any more of it. The pickled fennel kept to itself and didn't compliment the dish in any way while the the hen of the woods mushrooms were kept to a minimum - there was only one in the dish.
Kins ordered the yellowtail tuna dish which was supposed to feature a charred octopus & potato salad. The yellowtail was cooked properly with a nice sear to the outside. The potato salad was even interesting - fried rather than boiled (think well cooked home fries). However, the charred octopus was much like the mushrooms in my dish - non existent except for one, measly piece. I'm sorry, but when you shell out $26 for a dish, there needs to be more than one bite of the ingredients mentioned on the menu. And like the monkfish entree, this dish didn't really have any flavor. The corn milk hushpuppies fell into the same category of everything else - no flavor. They were also entirely too dense - hushpuppies from a modest fish shack are worlds better.
Nothing at the Optimist was revolting or inedible. The problem was that nothing tasted great or even good. While a modest home cook may not be able to prepare a piece of monkfish to perfection, they could surely impart more memorable (or in this case, existing) flavors. The best bite I had all evening was the complimentary bread - fluffy, buttery and topped with some quality salt, it was a nice bite to kick off what I (at the time) suspected would be a great meal. But alas, it was the only bite I fully enjoyed for the rest of the evening. I began wondering if I had burned my tongue severely on the gumbo because after that, I didn't taste much of anything.
P.S. The valet parking here sucks - they have a huge lot, with tons of empty spaces, yet it took us about 10 minutes to retrieve our car. When will restaurants stop using valet?