At your service

Keep it quiet and keep it coming

I am in imminent danger of hating everything. This unpleasant thought crossed my mind recently when I read and agreed with William Grimes' very funny piece in the Jan. 16 New York Times about chatty waiters who become your new best friend for the duration of a dinner. Confessing their menu favorites, blithering about this and that, they often end a meal by touching you on the shoulder maternally or shaking your hand and telling you what a pleasure you've been.

I can't even bear this degree of intimacy from friends, much less service people. Of course, one expects earnestness from a friend — because a friend isn't doing it all for a tip. I gave up asking waitrons their opinions about menu dishes years ago when I realized they were either completely motivated by sales or the need to suggest the safest — that is blandest — choice.

I dine with several people who insist on asking the server's opinion about dishes and I have perfected the art of hissing through my teeth and rolling my eyes violently while they do this. I explain: In an ethnic restaurant, the question always means you are going to be recommended what the server thinks the people who gave the world McDonald's will most enjoy. My friends ignore me. And time and again, I've listened to them whine while I, having asked about ingredients in a dish, eat something fabulous and they nosh on the particular cuisine's version of a Big Mac. They chalk it up to my culinary sensibilities. I chalk it up to common sense.

In mainstream restaurants, as Grimes cites, it's no different typically. Whatever you choose on your own is a "good choice" and whatever you ask the waiter about would be a "good choice" too. Of course the special is always an "excellent choice," particularly if the price isn't mentioned in the description. The very best choice is the most expensive one that isn't going to produce a strong opinion when the waiter comes around to ask, "How is everything?" Because, of course, he doesn't really want to know.

If, like my constant companion Wayne Johnson, you must — out of some eternal and wrong conviction that people are honest — ask the waiter's opinion, you also must quiz her at length about the recommended dish's preparation and ingredients. If she is all ga-ga over the dish but doesn't know ca-ca about it, you've encountered a fool.

Now, although the waitron-therapist is overtaking New York, we often encounter something of the radical opposite here. At my recent visit to Kyma, the pretty pair occupying the host stand couldn't seem to make eye contact with anyone who addressed them. Chillier than the display of fish on ice behind them, they were an odd anomaly in a restaurant that otherwise features — like most Buckhead Life restaurants — a staff that is at once warm and knowledgeable without trying to make you a family member.

I actually do enjoy service people who are a bit edgy. A certain purveyor of lunchtime tacos on Cheshire Bridge is capable of feeding customers a salsa of sarcasm with every dish. The ultimate is the staff at Ed Debevic's Diner in Chicago where the staff is trained to insult the customers, although the invective was certainly quite watered-down last time I visited. There used to be a mean-mouthed barmaid at the Clermont Lounge who put you in your place faster than you could comment on the network of track marks on the cellulite she jiggled for dollars.

But the neurotic handwringers, wearing the kind of concerned expressions they teach you in therapy school, need re-education in their actual function: to take your order, get food to your table, to provide service and otherwise shut-the-fuck-up. We are probably forever stuck with those waitrons who represent the great majority of their trade — namely resentful young people on their way to stardom. As long as table service is seen as a transient occupation, except in fine dining restaurants, we are all bound to suffer.

Grant Park report
The dining scene in the Grant Park area improves. Agave gets better and better. The Eating Place provides some good comfort food at reasonable prices. Grant Central has remodeled and is preparing some decent specials. Foodz to Go makes incomparable sandwiches — when you find them open.

Now Ria's Bluebird Cafe (421 Memorial Drive, 404-521-3737) is opening evenings, having developed a bustling breakfast and lunch trade. Frankly, I find this restaurant much more attractive evenings. Its funky edges are softened by darkness and colored lighting. The view of Memorial Drive and Oakland Cemetery is not so immediate.

The food, a bit kinky for its low prices, is mainly good, although flavors here and there indicate a heavy hand with spices. There's nothing remotely wrong with the arugula salad. Its peppery flavor is offset by candied pecans, roasted tomatoes and bits of goat cheese and apricot — and the $6 price for the trendy greens is notable. I also enjoyed three enormous shrimp deliciously grilled and served over a mild mole with some avocado salsa ($5). My only complaint was the way the dish featured a halved lime sunk in the mole. To squeeze it over the shrimp required gunking up the hands.

We also sampled a starter of ravioli filled with butternut squash and mascarpone in chicken consomme ($8). The dish is as rich as cream and would be flawless if the kitchen cut back the use of sage by half.

Likewise, otherwise juicy pork tenderloin stuffed with chard, parmesan and dates, would have been perfect if the rosemary were reduced significantly ($12). The dish is served with a cloud of marvelously purple mashed potatoes over a light jus. Another bargain.

Pan-seared Atlantic salmon is served over a sweet-potato cake ($13). It's a nice contrast of textures, but the cucumber and leek salsa's contrast needs its sweet acidity turned down a few notches. Unfortunately, too, my fish was virtually raw at one end.

We loved our desserts. A coconut and butter-cream tart with lime zest is pure Old South ($6). But even better was the chipotle chocolate brownie with champagne sorbet and pumpkin-nut brittle ($6). The chipotle, compared to other flavors, needs turning up.

In nearby Cabbagetown, things have changed at Carroll Street Cafe. The original owner, Kim Vidal, has left the restaurant entirely to her business partner, who also operates Apres Diem. I can't say the basic menu seems to have suffered much — though Vidal's gorgeous desserts are sorely missed. The Cafe is opening an adjoining bar and evening specials sometimes reach the quality of Apres Diem's.

Meanwhile, I was informed that Vidal had moved to Cabbagetown Grill to revise the menu there. Wayne and I made a beeline when we heard this, because our food there has been quite mediocre during the last year.

"Is Kim here?" I asked our server.

"No, she's not here tonight," she said, handing us a menu.

"This menu doesn't look much different, except for some deletions," I said. "I thought Kim was revising it."

"Oh, well, um, actually, Kim ... I don't think ... I think she's not working here after all," she said.

I will say that the quality of our food was nevertheless better. Apparently, a new kitchen staff is in place. And, wherever Kim Vidal has landed, we wish her well and hope her coconut cake finds the appreciation it deserves.

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

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