- Steven Gilmore
- The A Tempo burger and fries pair up well with spring rolls.
In musical terms, a tempo signifies a return to a previous tempo after, say, a rallentando, or slowdown. If there were a culinary equivalent, it might be represented by the hopeful rechristening of the former Valentino's di Olmos/Olmos Park Bistro/Etcetera. A Tempo, the restaurant, has resiliently rebounded from an amazing number of rallentandos — really more like fermatas, or holds — in its short history. Could another new name be transformative? Is the fourth time the charm?
Signs weren't especially good one weekday lunch. I arrived to find one table occupied; three other diners eventually showed up. Part of the noontime issue may be pricing. Lunch entrees run from $11-$25, a range that tends to frighten folks hereabouts, though there are salads, sandwiches, and pizzas for less. The $10 A Tempo burger with fancy bacon, pepperjack cheese, and avocado is perfectly competent; the more creative-sounding Chef's Favorite sandwich with roasted pork, bacon, crispy pork skin, and apple butter promises more than it delivers.
A seasonally appropriate roasted squash soup, handsomely served in a small tureen, did deliver on expectations one midday; it was mellow, hot, and might only have used a hint of cayenne. An order of cavatappi pasta, on the other hand, seemed to lack even a grace note of its expected chipotle cream sauce; chewy roasted corn and cheese were the dominant players in this ensemble.
Much has been said about the inhospitable character of the restaurant — this despite the hospitality of the owner, Martha McCracken. The bar room is really the only place with any charm, and if you aren't in the mood for music with your dinner, that means you'll be exiled to the featureless central space; it will take more than a few paintings to make it attractive. Screening off the kitchen wouldn't hurt.
Less has been said, however, about the chefs that have cycled through that kitchen. It's worth noting that Laurent Rea, who wielded the baton a couple of names back, has gone on to make a highly desirable destination of Laurent's Modern Cuisine. Most recently, it seemed that another talented chef, Tomme Johnson, formerly of The Grill in Leon Springs, had been hired to create a new menu with an emphasis on seasonal, local cuisine, but he, too, has moved on, having apparently served only as a guest conductor. "He left some good ideas," said
McCracken when asked. "There's a chef now who worked with Laurent... I think we're going to get it this time."
Maybe if she lets him do his thing. But right now the menu reads more like a list of survivors of past experiments than a document with any kind of focus. The term "crispy" appears three times on the evening appetizer list, though the rendition applying to spring rolls of duck and pork actually works well. Apart from some utilitarian sauce dishes, one with a thin mango sauce, another with an uncompromising fish sauce, the presentation is good, the flavors robust. The A Tempo shrimp, heading an entrée list that runs the gamut from chicken tagine to a panko-crusted tilapia and java-rubbed ribeye, fared less well.
On the surface, this seemed like a worthwhile variation on the currently popular shrimp and grits: Southern-style grits with peppers, onions, and okra were promised, as was a lemon garlic hollandaise. To be sure, there were plenty of smallish shrimp, though they were a little overcooked; the vegetable component was hidden under the shrimp and counted for little; the grits themselves were bland and soupy; and the hollandaise lacked body. Despite promise, the kitchen's heart just wasn't in it. The wine list did supply a perfectly adequate Macon La Roche Vielles Vignes, however, so the evening was not lost.
And the singer/guitarist in the adjacent bar was actually very pleasant. It should be noted, too, that she was not playing to an empty house. If this is not yet an a-tempo experience then it's at least occasionally an up-tempo one. Time will tell.
Best Bets Seasonal soups, A Tempo burger, spring rolls, house bread
Hours 11am-9pm Mon-Thu 11am-10pm Fri-Sat 11am-3pm Sun