Cinematic suggestions

Movie mood determines dinner destination

What puts us in mind for a particular restaurant? Don't we all sit with friends and reject a series of proposed restaurants until one, for mysterious reasons, sounds right? Among the rejections may be restaurants that we ordinarily like.

The psychological aspect of dining out is probably the most difficult thing a restaurateur can attempt to manipulate. Some attempt successfully to create environments that make their customers feel hip and then, because the nature of the trendy is to expire, they end up with nobody to eat their over-garnished fusion food. Our fickle moods more than marketing alone influence our choice of and our ensuing critical response to a restaurant.

This can operate quite unconsciously and ended up feeling almost Pavlovian last week. I saw three movies, all of them about the imagination, and, without even thinking, ended up in restaurants that, in retrospect, seemed perfect choices for the mood established by each movie.

Let's start with Mulholland Drive, the most recent auteur work by surrealist-gone-mainstream David Lynch. The movie is set in Los Angeles and, although I hated it at first, I've come to like it a lot, the more I've thought about it. In other words, I was in a conflicted state.

Thus I ended up at Soto (3330 Piedmont Road, 404-233-2005), as good as any of the top sushi bars in Los Angeles, but also one whose notoriously slow service makes dining there a love-hate relationship. I must say, for a Saturday night, we didn't find it nearly as crowded and slow as usual and maybe the recessionary economy is to blame. You won't leave Soto feeling richer but you will feel spoiled.

Chef Soto, working front and center at the bar, offers a daily menu of uncanny sushi dishes, in addition to the normal menu which includes a broad range of Japanese dishes. But feeling unstable, I could not resist the special of "live lobster sashimi with caviar" ($16.50).

"Now, um, this lobster is not going to be quivering at the table, is it?" I asked the waitress. It wasn't so many years ago in L.A. when a piece of dancing sashimi was put in front of me and even then I thought of David Lynch's original film, Eraserhead and its dinner of pulsating pigeons.

She assured me that the lobster was killed out of sight just beforehand and would not be moving. Order it, if it's available. Oh, it's no more than five mouthfuls but it's typical Soto at his rarefied best. The lobster, barely chewy and weirdly sweet, is marinated in truffled soy sauce and served in the (cooked) shell of the tail. It's served under a marvelous yuzu-kimizu sauce with spoon bill caviar, of which you'll want to get every tiny egg.

Another amazing special that night featured thin slices of a fish from the Jack family, also in a truffled soy sauce, garnished with hair-thin ginger and scallions ($14.50). By all means, order it, but be judicious with the ginger, which handily overwhelms every other flavor on the plate.

From the regular menu, we also ordered spider rolls, salmon skin rolls, rainbow rolls and a few pieces of nigiri. I'll always covet a seat at the bar here — and that should be your first choice.

The delightful French film Amelie is about a young woman who lives in her imagination and repeatedly defers her own need for love by giving to others. Wayne, total Francophile and speaker of flawless French, was all aglow after the movie and we landed, completely without intention, at Cafe de Nice (580 Pharr Road, 404-264-1678).

If you haven't been to this least known of Atlanta's French cafes, you've missed a real treat. Located in a cottage with a slightly ragged look, it's an immediate transit to Provence and offers some of the least expensive Provencal-style cuisine in our city. The coq au vin is arguably the city's best. Fish always receives excellent attention.

But where to dine after the really ugly A Beautiful Mind? Since the movie is about a Harvard-educated genius with schizophrenia, maybe you can put the absurd parts of the movie out of your own mind and focus on the clubby, woody ambiance of Cambridge bars. We landed, therefore, at Tiburon Grille (1190 N. Highland Ave., 404-892-2393).

It had been years since I dined there and the room has much changed from the cavern it was in the beginning. The ceiling has been dropped and the place has taken on the feel of a neighborhood cafe.

The menu is an agreeable blend of comfort dishes with various inspirations. My entree of fried chicken ($13), served with collards and garlic-mashed potatoes was probably the best version I've had in the city, with the exception of Scott Peacock's at Watershed. The chef fries his chicken in a cast iron skillet, instead of using the ubiquitous deep fryer, and you'll tell the difference.

Wayne ordered sashimi-grade tuna pan-seared with black sesame seeds and topped with a wasabi cream sauce ($19). Everything about it — including its sides of slightly sweet sesame-soy vegetables and rice noodles — was delicious, but, honestly, you need to try the fried chicken.

A starter of smoked salmon over slices of fried eggplant ($7.50) simply didn't work for me. Two unctuous textures like these especially need a more acidic sauce than a roasted red-pepper rouille. Much better was Wayne's huge arugula salad ($7.50), tossed with bits of montrachet cheese and a vinaigrette with applewood-smoked bacon. Tiburon is imperfect but delightful and a great place to shake the willies after a really bad movie.

Lord of the Rings? I haven't seen it yet. Maybe I'll end up at Chuck E. Cheese's.

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