January 11, 2012
First Bite: An Exclusive Preview of The Lawrence & Its Surprise Culinary Posse
The mad-creatives behind Dinner Party & Top Flr forge a biz partnership with The King of Pops for a much-hyped Midtown eatery
By Liza Dunning
- Photos by Dustin Chambers
A co-op of the best kind: Scoutmob and Midtown’s highly anticipated new restaurant, The Lawrence, recently hosted four sold-out, preview dinners in the restaurant’s almost-finished 905 Juniper space…. And the evenings’ highlights were as much about the (very credentialed) parties involved, as the amazing food and spirits. Here’s the exclusive first look at what to expect when The Lawrence opens its doors later this month…
“A culinary jam session.”
That’s how Patrick La Bouff, co-owner of The Lawrence, described the evening in his toast to the packed dining room. It was the last night of four semi-clandestine dinners co-hosted by The Lawrence and Scoutmob (The Atlanta deals company offered exclusive tickets for these preview dinners to their Scoutmob subscribers, which sold out like hot cakes). The late December dinners were also a tacit collaboration between the unfinished restaurant and the diners: here to peruse the raw, unfinished space and test the kitchen before anyone else could. In that sense, LaBouff addressed the crowd of food-loving pioneers as “early investors” in the restaurant. But instead of signing fat checks, these investors were contributing something a little more intangible: open minds, curious palates, and an eagerness to experience the fledgling restaurant prior to its final touches. As it turned out, these evenings were just as much about the indulgent food and drinks as they were about the impressive team that coalesced to make this restaurant a reality.
Yes, the obvious draw of The Lawrence is the collective resume of its powerhouse participants. Prior to The Lawrence, co-owners Darren Carr and La Bouff created the popular underground supper club Dinner Party, which hosts adventuresome meals in edgy, unexpected Atlanta locales like private airplane hangars and even the basketball court at Georgia Tech. Chef Shane Devereux, with whom Carr and LaBouff have already teamed successfully at the perennially hip Atlanta eatery Top Flr. and Dinner Party (he's also head chef at Sound Table), was also tapped to take the culinary lead as executive chef of The Lawrence.
It was Carr who kick-started the concept for the restaurant by throwing around terms like a neighborhood café/bistro, eventually settling on an “urban-elegant place with a neighborhood vibe and an immaculate cuisine, beverage and service program.”
LaBouff adds, “Our aim is to capture both the neighborhood and destination dining folks with everything from a jeans-and-shirt crowd to a Friday Night cocktail tux.” Indeed, there may be a few tuxes spotted in the crowd when The Lawrence opens, as the bow-tie wearing LaBouff and his team exude a hipster-glam Rat Pack vibe. As for Devereaux’s cuisine, think: “New American with classical French and Asian influences, but approachable.” And the name of the joint…it’s not a tribute to an epicurean family member or rabid food patron, but rather an allusion to the patron saint of restaurants and chefs, St. Lawrence, who legend has it quipped, while being burned at the stake by heathens, “turn me over… I think I am done on this side.” The black-humor name was hatched over an Irish whiskey-fueled brainstorming session between LaBouff, Carr and Devereaux, who also thought the name exuded a certain “elegance, masculinity and permanence,” and they’re sticking to it.
With the combined pull of this trio, the Lawrence team has also brought on Chef de Cuisine George Brooks, fresh off a four-year stint as Rathbun’s Chef de Cuisine and two local libation legends as the co-beverage directors Eric Simpkins (DrinkShop, Trois) and T. Fable Jeon (named one of “10 Mixologists to Watch” in 2011 by The Beverage Network).
According to Simpkins, the drinks will have a “classic base with modern innovation and a playful spirit,” and that playfulness will be evident, in part, by the incorporation of other beverages like wine, beer, coffee and tea into the cocktail recipes. Simpkins also slyly hints, “And being on Juniper Street, you can also expect a wide selection of gins.”
With these names alone, The Lawrence has stacked a pretty impressive culinary team. But it was a couple of interesting, very unexpected names on these preview nights, in addition to the core posse, that raised a few brows: Steven and Nick Carse (A.K.A. The King of Pops) . It seems the lads were there not to dine or push their insanely popular gourmet pops, but to pitch in around The Lawrence kitchen, polish stemware and plate food….An example of local food community support, to be sure, but it was more than that. The pair may have been under-the-radar without their clearly identifiable, brightly-hued K.O.P. t-shirt uniforms, but the brothers, who recently propelled their street cart paleta biz into a mini culinary empire (now with outposts in Charleston and Asheville in addition to Atlanta) were personally invested in the success of these nights.
About four months ago the King of Pop brothers Carse had become hush-hush, quiet investors and co-owners of The Lawrence along with their friends, attorneys, and self-proclaimed “professional diners” (and avid fans of Dinner Party Atlanta) Harvey Daniels III and Donte Flanagan.
The foursome came into the mix last fall as The Lawrence was searching for a last bit of funding; and while these partners plan to keep a low profile in the restaurant’s day-to-day operation, their presence was most definitely felt on these preview nights. As one curious patron wondered aloud as Carse was seen plating food in the open kitchen, “Isn’t that... The King of Pops?! Is he a chef now?”
Quite the culinary jam session, indeed.
ACT ONE: BAR BITES AND COCKTAILS
The menus for these preview dinners read like carefully orchestrated culinary theatre, dividing nine sample dishes, three cocktails and four wines into three acts. The menus also served as a tantalizing preview of what’s to come when The Lawrence officially opens its doors in late January. As each guest checked in at the door, Simpkins welcomed them in from the cold by handing them a hot toddy, “The Lady Eve”---made with apple and vanilla-infused calvados, chai, honey, lemon and cinnamon. Then it was off to the open kitchen to meet Devereux and Brooks, and sample the savory “Bar Bites” set along the window ledge: Beef jerky with mirin and sambal, crunchy popped pork with fennel salt, sips of mushroom soup topped with thyme creme. A cork-board of pictures from past Dinner Party events was posted along the white subway tile walls--a collage of recipe ideas, memories, and emails exchanged amongst the crew and representing a visual roadmap of The Lawrence’s origins. While diners admired the visual aids, the bar dispensed another festive champagne cocktail, ”The Devils Cup,” a twist on a Pimm’s Cup, consisting of spiced cranberry jam, ginger, lemon, cassis and rose. Drinks in hand, guests settled eagerly into seats at the communal farm tables in the main dining area, along the extended bar, and at the special Chef’s Table facing the kitchen. And just before the main dinner act could start, came the clink-clink-clink of a wine glass and a toast from La Bouff: “Tonight is about the collaboration it took to make this restaurant happen in a crappy economy.... It may be an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but in a way, you’re all early investors in The Lawrence.”
ACT II: THE MAIN COURSES
The main courses were all sample tastes from Devereux’s planned menu for The Lawrence. Think: laid back, familial foods done up with a bit more flair such as Beets a la Cochon with creamy burrata and balsamic over baby romaine, which was paired with an earthy riesling.
A terrine of ham hock--one of Brooks’s own recipes, salty and savory, was mellowed out by the bright lemon of a Croix Blanche White; while Georgia rabbit carnitas with homestyle salsa verde and cojita cheese were served with a La Bergerie red.
As diners feasted on these original eats, they were guided through each course’s wine pairing thanks to a few words (and a bit of backstory) from liquid chef Simpkins as he wandered the floor, speaking over the buzz of the crowd. The final main dish, a robust Trigger fish dish served over curry leaf potatoes and smoked tomato, was paired (to the surprise of many, as Simpkins pointed out) not with a glass of white, but with with another red, a simpatico Castano Monastrell.
ACT III: DESSERT
The Lawrence showcase closed with a few sweet notes. The first: a golden raisin upside-down cake, finished with a caramel sauce, coconut, and salted caramel ice cream. The dessert cocktail---yes, one more for good measure—was in keeping with the season, a playful twist on eggnog, the Sylvester & Tweety, with bourbon, rye, bitters, eggs, cream, brown sugar, maple and spices. Sinfully sweet and silky, it was a perfect holiday nightcap. And before guests could leave, filled by such festive food, spirit, and anticipation for the opening date, there was one more surprise--hand-stamped envelopes bearing a gift certificate to The Lawrence and a keepsake card-stock menu from the evening--a token of affection for the eatery’s “early investors.”
With this final flourish, The Lawrence set the stage for what we can expect when the doors open to the public later this month: a truly ensemble performance of impressive talents, inspired (and delicious) culinary creations and an atmosphere that manages to be both casual and refined. But the experience also offered something a little more unexpected: an open, inclusive sense of community that inspires true conviviality. Judging by the buzzing dining room and excited diners at the end of the night, it’s a collaboration that will work just fine.
GET YOUR OWN SNEAK PEEK OF THE LAWRENCE, BEFORE IT OFFICIALLY OPENS TO THE PUBLIC, BY BOOKING ONE OF THEIR DINNER PARTY PREVIEWS THURS. JAN. 19TH OR FRIDAY JAN. 20TH, AT 7PM. $85 PER PERSON FOR A SIGNATURE COCKTAIL AND FOUR-COURSE MEAL WITH WINE PAIRINGS. VISIT THIS LINK FOR DETAILS AND TO BOOK YOUR RESERVATION (ONLY A FEW SEATS LEFT): https://www.dinnerpartyatlanta.com/purchase/?date=Sunday,%20January%2015,%202012#form
The Lawrence, 905 Juniper Street, 770.710..1618 or www.thelawrenceatlanta.com Serving lunch (11-3) and dinner (5-11PM) daily, as well as tea/coffee/small plates from 3-5PM, and brunch Saturday and Sunday.
The opening week of The Lawrence is slated for late January 2012. To witness the on-going progress, check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/thelawrenceatlanta
CLICK ON THE SLIDESHOW BELOW FOR PHOTOS FROM THE PREVIEW DINNER PARTY AND THE FULL OPENING MENU FOR THE LAWRENCE