It's Greek to me

Kyma gets rolling in Buckhead

Anyone old enough to start worrying about his age knows that one of the most dreadful effects of getting old is becoming a cartoon of one's self. Each year seems to exaggerate your eccentricities and, by horrible fate, your vanities as well.

I was thinking about this as I walked in the door of Kyma (3085 Piedmont Ave., 404-262-0702) last week. I was absentmindedly looking at the impressive marble columns imported from Greece as I moved toward the door. Suddenly, an ancient couple — snow-haired and dressed in black, with faces as dour as death — got out of a limo and moved toward the door too. Before I even had the chance to move out of the way, the old man whacked me gently with his umbrella to clear a path and the frowning couple elbowed their way by me.

Age — and money — have been kind to Pano Karatassos' Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. Ever since Pano's & Paul's opened in 1979, the company has set the standard for fine dining in a city that, prior to then, didn't even have one. The company's dominance — with restaurants like Nava and Bluepointe and 103 West — hasn't faltered. On the other hand, rather like that couple at the door to its newest venture, long success seems to have engendered a rather self-satisfied attitude of entitlement that often seems to presume immunity to criticism. In short, every critic dreads reviewing a Buckhead Life restaurant.

Kyma (which means "wave" in Greek) is certainly a welcome addition to Atlanta's dining scene, though I still regret the closing of the brilliant and short-lived Fusebox at the same location. Greek cuisine has not been well received in our city, and gourmet Greek has never lasted.

Since Karatassos is of Greek heritage himself, has very deep pockets and never hesitates in charging sometimes-breathtaking prices, we have every right to expect a high-caliber experience at Kyma. My one visit — which you should regard as a preliminary review — turned up some dishes that were good and some that were quite mediocre, far below the standards one expects when paying about $175 for a meal for two.

The decor, to my eyes, is a problem. I love the Johnson Studio's work, but it is almost becoming overexposed. It tips toward the overdramatic here. I do congratulate them for conspicuously avoiding the Aegean blue that has become the predictable main color in most Greek restaurants.

But the enormous columns out front, adequate to hide the Minotaur, are much too reminiscent in their Disney effect of the horrible towering fish at the group's Atlanta Fish Market just up the road. Indeed, Kyma is across the street from two other company properties, the retro-tacky Buckhead Diner and the Corner Cafe-Buckhead Bread Company, whose red-lit frieze is one of the most ostentatiously ugly sights in that neighborhood.

Once inside, things look better. There are more columns. Candles burn on the front wall. A long white gauzy curtain, like muslin in a Mykonos cottage window, waits for wind that will never come.

Wayne grew immediately nostalgic for his trips to Greece, ordering ouzo, the anise-flavored drink that turns white when mixed with water. Ouzo should be sipped while noshing on mezedes, appetizers. We ordered a selection of the traditional spreads, including tzatziki (yogurt with cucumber, garlic and dill), htipiti (pureed roasted red peppers with feta cheese), melitzanosalata (smoked eggplant and mint), and one made with potatoes ($14). All were tasty but lacked the strong clear flavors we've sampled elsewhere.

You also can order a sampling of five more substantial starters, though they are the least interesting on the menu ($10). So, instead of the plate of dishes like grape leaves or fried baby calamari (both of which have received rave reviews from friends), we ordered wood-grilled octopus over vinegared red onions. It's utterly delicious — miraculously grilled until blackened without turning rubbery — but we were flabbergasted that the tiny portion was $11.95.

I couldn't wait to dig into the plate of gorgeously wood-grilled sardines ($9), one of my favorites when I'm on the Mediterranean. Redolent of olive oil and lemon, the sardines, alas, were flat tasting and, worse, two of them were repulsively mushy. A side dish of giant white Kastorian beans, stewed with tomato and onions, was also disappointing. The beans were overcooked and dry.

The specialty, of course, is fish. Like the defunct Greek Island Taverna, Kyma features mainly straightforward grilling with olive oil, lemon and oregano. Almost all of the fish is sold by the pound, so don't go thinking that $18.75 on the daurade (a bream or porgy) is the total price. Wayne actually ordered a fish dish that is a bit more complicated — a snapper prepared souvlaki-style, cooked with onions, peppers and tomatoes and served over Greek potatoes ($22.50) that was delicious.

There are only three meat dishes on the menu. I ordered the boned lamb shank braised with cumin and served over trahana pasta with grated feta cheese ($22.50). I would have preferred a stronger use of cumin, but the fork-tender lamb melted in my mouth.

For dessert, with Greek coffee, we split a pear poached in ouzo, served with halva, a few raisins and — most enticing — olive oil ice cream ($6.50). Although we loved the ice cream, the rest of the dessert didn't excite us much. You'll also find homemade yogurt with candied walnuts, baklava with pistachio ice cream and semolina custard.

Undoubtedly, Kyma will improve. It's already drawing full houses. But it's going to have to get consistently better for me to drop that much money there again.

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