Out with the New, in the Old?
Ponce City Market’s tasteful Brezza Cucina made for a gracious gay Throwback Thursday date night in a year already ripe for nostalgia.
By Tray Butler
As we polished off dessert at Brezza Cucina, the stylish new Ponce City Market bistro, I turned to my dinner date and asked, “Wait, what year is it again?”
I was kidding. Mostly.
The first days of January often leave me sort of jetlagged, but my temporal unrest has been off the hook in 2016. Gas prices have dipped below $2. Folks are buzzing about “Star Wars,” “Full House” and “The X-Files.” Our next president could be a Bush or a Clinton. The “new” year so far feels suspiciously like a rerun.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Nostalgia accounts for much of the fun of visiting Ponce City Market. The renovation of the former Sears, Roebuck and Company building handled its retro-modern design elements with care and ingenuity. Its recent rebirth into a New Urbanist complex is nothing short of miraculous.
No wonder Chef Jonathan Waxman chose the refurbished market for his first Atlanta venture, Brezza Cucina. The 66-year-old restaurateur knows a thing or two about reinvention. He earned the title “celebrity chef” by bringing California cuisine to New York’s Upper East Side in the 1980s, has owned myriad high-profile restaurants and just as many flame-outs, and has held every spot on the culinary food chain. Along the way, he also competed on two seasons of “Top Chef: Masters,” published two cookbooks, and taught Martha Stewart how to roast a chicken.
Not that you need to know any of this to enjoy an evening at Brezza. Buzz over Waxman’s joint venture with Adam Evans, former executive chef at the Optimist in West Midtown, began to build late last summer. In October, they finally opened as an anchor tenant in Ponce City Market’s Central Food Hall.
A recent visit to the roomy 150-seat restaurant found the staff jovial and accommodating, which added to the relaxed vibe of the subtly designed space. Despite the exposed ductwork ceilings and imposing columns, the dining room felt cozy and not too noisy for conversation.
We were seated at a four-top near two giggling women wearing fedoras (no doubt purchased that night). A handful of business-attired types were holding court at the glowing main bar. Something about the bottle display and moody ochre lighting reminded me of a liquor ad from an early 1980’s gentlemen’s magazine, a noticeable whiff of Reagan-era affluence. The mood overall, though, better matched the restaurant’s name, “breeze” in Italian.
Such a name seems to imply a traditional Italian trattoria. Also, in light of Evans’s tenure at the Optimist, you might expect the menu to be mostly seafood. Neither of these assumptions are accurate. Our server described the ever-changing menu as “New American with Italian influences.” It also offers throwbacks to Waxman’s biggest achievements elsewhere. In the rear of the space, a flank of uniformed cooks bustled around a wood-fired oven; the open kitchen is a signature element of his empire, and a few other trademarks appeared on the menu. This is where our server stumbled.
Note to employees of celebrity-driven restaurants: When asked about the curious abbreviations on your menu, it might be wise to say more than, “JW stands for Jonathan Waxman.” This is your chance to explain to the uninitiated that the roasted chicken covered in an unusual salsa verde is an often-requested favorite from the founder’s other restaurants. Leaving out this tidbit might make the menu sound a bit haughty.
We were disappointed to hear that the lobster gnocchi – rumored to be Brezza’s standout dish – had been replaced with a hen of the woods variation. Our server fared better with his recommendation to start with the salame pizza. Greasy, yes; filling, definitely. Also, delicious.
Ditto for my date’s heritage pork chop served with spicy chickpea fries, a replacement entrée for an uncooperative hangar steak. Despite the minor stumbles, Brezza earned points for its ambiance, hands-on floor staff, and exemplary customer service.
Our meal ended with what might’ve been the real star of the evening, a delectable chocolate budino served with whipped cream and a brutti ma buoni cookie. After inhaling two of these, I wandered out into the food hall, dazed on a sugar high, dying to know what irresistible reruns 2016 may have in store next.
Brezza Cucina, 675 Ponce De Leon Ave., Ponce City Market, 404-724-9700, brezzacucina.com