Vinings is a special part of Atlanta. Straddling the perimeter and desperately trying to reap the benefits of city life with the copacetic, predictable nature of suburban life, it has attracted an affluent demographic. And with it has developed somewhat of a fine dining culture. Undoubtedly this dining scene is far better than the never-ending sea of Chili’s, Macaroni Grills and Olive Gardens in suburbia, but rarely does it surprise.
Enter Social Vinings. Part of the Chef Paul post-Panos & Paul’s mini-empire, Social Vinings is everything that is wrong with the Atlanta upscale dining scene. It is emblematic of several disturbing trends and this kind of culinary trainwreck requires careful deconstruction. So let’s carefully dissect, and enumerate the levels at which it fails.
1. It violates Pedro’s Theorem. It’s the perfect example of how too many options and themes on the menu attempt to please all and ends up failing all. The menu includes small plates, entrees, sandwiches, what amounts to bar food, and sushi. Yes, sushi. Put some advertisements on the menu and you’ve got a Cheesecake Factory-level disaster.
2. It is absolutely terrifying how insecure restauranteurs, in a desperate attempt to be trendy, have allowed sushi to encroach upon every menu. Don’t get me wrong, I like sushi. I think sushi is a fine culinary discipline, and therefore deserves its own venue. Do you want to eat sushi? Go to a sushi restaurant. Sushi should be exulted.
The proliferation of bad sushi in this city has not resulted in the refinement of the craft and of palates, but rather in its mediocritization. Sushi-to-go is found in supermarkets like Publix and Kroger and anything rolled with rice and seaweed suddenly becomes sushi. I have run across something described as a “mexican sushi”. A joke now is pointless. All of this reminds me of the time when the French gave us the croissant, and we made the Croissan’wich.
3. It’s patronizing and gimmicky. The menus and the staff’s t-shirts say:
so⋅cial [soh-shuhl] adjective – seeking or enjoying the companionship of others
What am I, illiterate? Without their lexical assistance, would I have been doomed at the bar, not realizing that I should have sought / enjoyed the company of others?
4. It puts style over substance. I love beautifully plated dishes. But they have to taste good first. It’s like parallel parking, if you don’t pass that section in your driver’s exam, you automatically fail. Focus on the food being good. Please. Then we can monkey around with the vertical sensibilities of the dish. This focus on style over substance rings true when one contrasts the obvious attention to detail in the aesthetics of the restaurant and the obvious lack of attention with the service, the staff and the food.
As I implied in the fourth item, the restaurant is beautiful. Tons of use of natural light, deep reds and wood dominate. The crowd here after work is downright cougarlicious, liberally sprinkled with jaguars and the occasional puma. However, there is something artificial at play. The cougars and jaguars obviously did very well on their divorces, as proved by their well-executed nips and tucks, but the atmosphere just isn’t that friendly. It’s almost like a museum: it’s very beautiful, but it’s cold and you can’t touch anything.
I have visited Social Vinings as an after-work activity on numerous occasions, always nibbling on the “Love at First Bite” section of their menu, and always walking away in disappointment. In this last occasion, I went for lunch as part of a large crowd. This presented the best opportunity to assess service levels, passion for the food as well as get first-hand a wide-variety of their offerings. I wasn’t expecting greatness, but I figured that redemption might be found in some dish; that somehow an ambitious sous chef had managed to sneak into the menu something consequential.
I was wrong. And most everyone around me concurred.
To be fair, there were two Social Vinings enthusiasts at the table. One of them described the Lobster Club Sandwich as “sex on a roll” and the other one was a frequent visitor (or recidivist, as I like to refer to him.)
The theater of bathos unfolded over two courses for me: the mushroom bisque which was the soup of the day, and my entrée, the cilantro curried chicken with rice pilaf and seasonal vegetables. I deliberately stayed clear of the sandwich section since I’ve been on a sandwich-at-lunch streak lately, and I didn’t want to have to revisit Social for dinner unless it was strictly necessary. The mushroom bisque was inedible and terrifyingly plated.
Now soup is known as being extraordinarily difficult to photograph. Unless it is piping hot, properly presented and garnished, it tends to look vaguely disgusting. That being said, there was no way of saving the portrayal of this soup. It was served lukewarm and without a garnish to speak of. Garnish is important in a soup like this, because it’s a good way to introduce flavor and texture as well as adding color. Mushrooms just aren’t very colorful (at least not the ones you really want to eat after.)
But no matter. Regardless of the faux pas in presentation, the mushroom bisque was just bad. I had to double-check this with a fellow diner in case that my underdeveloped palate was missing something. Maybe this flavor was actual earthiness tussling with umami and I was just missing it. Maybe it truly was deeply satisfying to someone else. Survey says: NO.
One spoonful was good enough for me and I decided to forget the entire sordid affair. Note that the server at no point realized that the soup was not being touched and that it was until well after my entrée was served that the bowl of soup was removed. And there were no questions as to why it was still full. And yes, I got charged for it.
The cilantro curried chicken was our second act. This one had the potential. It’s rare to run into curried dishes outside of ethnic restaurants and this one used rice pilaf and seasonal vegetables. Were the culinary winds blowing in the right direction? Wrong again. The chicken was cooked far beyond well-done. It was a leathery, dry, grainy, tough chicken cutlet without any curry pungency. The curry was later found in the vegetables, which were few and far between. I ran into a carrot and a couple of pieces of cauliflower.
At least the rice pilaf was good and properly cooked. The arugula was also nice and refreshing to the dish, though I wish it would have had a tiny bit more acid. But with a jarring problem like the chicken’s doneness, more acid wouldn’t have changed my mind. Do note that there were three other people that ordered the same dish and that the chicken was destroyed in all of them.
To go on about the mediocrity of all the dishes around me would be redundant. Nobody was amazed by the food, a general feeling of being underwhelmed dominated. One last thing that will go to prove my point about their gimmicky ways is the feature of a deep-fried Oreo cookie in their desserts. Yep. I even took a picture. This is the kind of dessert that I would expect on a Betty Crocker recipe book.
Maybe I’m just being difficult, but this is a one-knife restaurant.