Looks are deceiving

Gilbert's decor doesn't make food palatable

I want a job like my friend Brad has. He writes fund-raising copy for a religious organization. What a life, raking in cash by saying good things about Jesus. For him, there's nothing but comfort and the promise of eternal salvation.

Me? I frequently have to write reviews that get me damned. Sometimes my voice mail sounds like a recording made at a clinic for sufferers of Tourette Syndrome. Anthrax? Not yet. But I've had dog crap mailed to me.

Lord, I swear on the Bible I tried to like Gilbert's Mediterranean Cafe (219 10th St., 404-872-8012). I tried so hard that after a lunch that included falafel with which you could play golf, I went back for dinner and still couldn't have a really good meal.

I wanted to like the food in part because the restaurant is quite a looker. It's located next to Blake's, a gay bar for the young. (The middle-aged do not walk before Blake's without crossing to the other side of the street, lest they be accused of behaving like men who hang out at playgrounds.) Marine-green walls, high-backed red banquettes and perforated metal lanterns from Ali Baba's den decorate Gilbert's small dining room. Up a few stairs is a cozy bar. It's altogether delightful, especially at night ... until you start eating.

I've seldom failed to finish a lunch, but I left most of my order at Gilbert's uneaten. It annoyed me, I admit, that the menu includes a number of Middle Eastern mezze but no sample platter. To get a good sample, you have to drop quite a bit of cash, since each item averages $5. I ended up tasting stuffed grape leaves, falafel, hummus, baba ghanoush and borek.

The latter, three fried dumplings filled with feta, ground beef and chicken, were by far the most savory, despite a mysteriously obnoxious chipotle-mango sauce. Everything else was unprecedentedly unpleasant. I didn't think it could get worse than golf-ball falafel and then I tasted grape leaves that seemed to have been dipped in slime. In fairness, half of them were tasty; I have no explanation. Baba ghanoush was tasteless. Hummus was dry.

The waiter asked if I wanted to carry the leftovers.

"Where?" I asked.

"Home," he said.

"No," I said, "not there."

Almost a week later, when Will Bonner and I decided to have dinner, I suggested Gilbert's. I was certain dinner would have to be better than lunch. Of course, I did not tell Will until after we'd ordered to prepare for the worst. Actually, things started almost well. A little plate of kalamatas ($2) was fine and Will's calamari with marinara was acceptable ($5). Avoid at all costs, though, the prosciutto with melon ($6). The ham was an inferior grade, too thickly cut, and it wrapped completely unripe, crunchy pieces of cantaloupe and honeydew.

Will's entree of grilled shrimp ($13) prompted him to call it "shrimp-flavored rubber bands." It's been a long time since we'd encountered shrimp so miserably overcooked. The menu says the entree of rosemary-and-bay-leaf-marinated "lamb chops a la Mid-Town" is "grilled to make you smile." I tried to smile but the fatty little chops were tough and bitter — as was the $19 price I had to swallow.

Did I like anything? A big bowl of rice pudding wasn't too bad and Will's chocolate mousse cake was as good as most.

Undoubtedly, many will disagree with me. Cozy atmospheric restaurants like Gilbert's tend to build loyal followings, but even a third nervous visit to the restaurant in the middle of writing this column produced no better a culinary experience.

Finger food

Ethiopian food has never been my favorite. Or, better said, the manner of eating Ethiopian food has always turned me off. I don't much like the sour injera bread that resembles a pancake. Since Ethiopians use the bread to pick up every bite of their otherwise delicious cuisine, you're out of luck if you don't like the bread and no silverware is available.

That complaint aside, I love Meskerem (404-417-0991), a new Ethiopian restaurant at 2329 Cheshire Bridge, near the Tara theater. Oversized, with a dance floor and impressive sound equipment, the restaurant also serves as a weekend nightclub for Atlanta's burgeoning population of Ethiopians. There's not much decor, except for some skillful use of color, but the staff is as divinely sweet as the cuisine is spicy.

The menu is extensive and includes many vegetarian offerings. Wayne, who is unnaturally fond of Ethiopian cooking, ordered a vegan combination ($7.50) that included shredded and seasoned collards, red lentils in a hot red pepper sauce and yellow split peas cooked with garlic and onions. It's a terrific range of flavors. Ethiopian cuisine, which tends to be full of butter, can approach the fiery but most of it, like the yellow split peas, is in the spicy midrange.

I ordered the meat combo ($10). I was happy to see it included meat attached to the bone so that I could comfortably pick up about half the food without having to bloat myself with injera. One chicken leg was cooked in the universally popular doro wot style — simmered with red pepper and ginger. It's typically served with hard-boiled eggs.

The combo also included two varieties of lamb — one in a red pepper sauce and the other in a turmeric sauce. Finally, there was tibis fitfit, beef "pre-mixed" with injera. I found, by the way, that the combo I was served was different from the menu's description, so you may want to query first.

Vegetarians, bargain-hunters, chili heads and lovers of the exotic will all enjoy Meskerem.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.??

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