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Checking in with Paul Luna, the man who brought the trend to town

You remember Paul Luna. After making a hit as Atlanta's brilliant bad boy chef at the now defunct Luna Si, he started Atlanta's first tapas restaurants, Eclipse di Luna and Loca Luna. As if the kinky decor and location next to Backstreet weren't enough, the latter became even more infamous for Luna's habit of dancing nearly naked on the bar there. Tetas and tapas, you might say.

Luna left town a year or so ago, selling his restaurants, running away to the glitter, glamour and nudity of Las Vegas. Then, weirdly, he returned to our area to open a restaurant in Hogansville, of all places. The restaurant, across from the "big hotel" in Hogansville, is called Chef's Table, but has no name on it.

I ran into Luna at my favorite lunch spot, Sundown Cafe, recently. When I expressed incredulity that he'd hidden himself in a tiny town well north of the city, he assured me that he was very happy. "I am so relaxed," he said. "But the best thing is that I can cook like I want to."

I asked him what he meant.

"I just got very sick of the marketing part of cooking," he said. "Atlanta has become one of those places dominated by trends. Everything has to be trendy, complicated in a pointless way. I just got back from New York and when you eat in a good restaurant there, you have a piece of fish and a potato with some vegetables. It's none of this trendy bullshit anymore. I'm cooking very simple food at my new restaurant, for maybe 12 people in an evening. I love it."

"Well," I said, "speaking of trends, you really started the tapas trend here in Atlanta. We can't avoid the things any more."

"Yes," he said, "but it's the same problem. The more they are done, the trendier they get, the more they get away from what they should be — simple, straightforward, inexpensive, uncomplicated small portions."

Indeed. Too often, tapas have become a marketing technique to push small plates of overpriced food on trend- seeking Atlantans. Having spent nearly four months in Spain during the last year and becoming an aficionado of the Andalusian style of grazing, I've often raged here about the way tapas are misrepresented. A tapa should be a few bites of food to eat with wine and should cost only a few dollars. A larger portion, enough for two people, is a media racion. It is not a tapa.

I'm afraid I have the same complaint about the tapas at the otherwise delightful Sweet Devil Moon in Oakhurst (350 Meade Road, Decatur, 404-371-3999). This is Peruvian cuisine and, of course, the Peruvians do not even eat tapas, so you know from the moment you enter the restaurant, that you're part of a marketing experiment. Sure, I like that you get to sample Peruvian cuisine this way. But I don't much like spending $30 per person to get a thorough sampling of food served in portions larger than actual tapas.

The space is groovy — heavily draped, hung with art and filled with banged-up furniture and tables. There's a cozy bar area where diners, including a handful of young Peruvians, await tables. Everyone swills pisco sours — a Peruvian cocktail served over a bubbling vase that makes it look like a Rocky Horror Picture Show prop.

I visited with my friend Tommy Brown on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, we were seated at the table close to the evening's jazz trio, Esquina de Luao. They have a great sound — when they lower their volume and you move, as we did, to a table on the other side of the restaurant.

The food ranges from the mediocre to the very good. I especially loved the yuca rellena — globes of fried mashed yuca containing a sweet filling of raisins and chicken ($4.95). Ditto for skewers of seasoned chicken served with a bit of sweet potato and the restaurant's ubiquitous jalapeño sauce ($4.95), a fiery but creamy concoction that becomes quickly addictive. I disliked the evening's special, a large tamal which, contrary to its description, was not the least bit moist ($4.95). It reminded me a bit of taro paste — sticky and dry but gooey, with a filling of chicken, olives and eggs that was way too skimpy.

Jalea is fried calamari, octopus and shrimp ($4.95). It's decently done and served with the jalapeño sauce plus a very unpleasant sweet tamarind sauce. A little plate of bland paella is grossly overpriced at $7.95. Order the pepian de pollo instead. It's chunks of fried chicken over rice turned slightly green by its seasonings ($4.95).

Shelled mussels are served in a bowl tossed with red onions, tomatoes, corn and jalapeños ($4.25). There's way too much onion and too few mussels, but it's fine for scooping onto saltines. The asado, described as beef stew, is really just a chunk of pot roast ($4.55), flavorful enough but I think you'll much prefer the classic lomo saltado, sauteed beef with onions, tomatoes and French fries ($5.25). Also recommended: marinated octopus ($4.95), shrimp chowder ($6.95) and chicken soup ($3.95).

The favored regular dessert is a coconut-enriched flan ($5.95), but the restaurant also prepares, as a special, a wonderful tres leches.

E-mail Cliff Bostock or call his voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 with restaurant comments.??

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