Terra firma

Terra di Siena, Midtown and Chinese New Year

We worried when we showed up at Terra di Siena (654 Peachtree St., 404-885-7505) and saw the sign that says, "Proper attire required." Considering the location next to the Fox Theatre and the rather Milanese look to the place, I wasn't sure what this could mean. I was prepared to tell the host that I had gained entrance to Studio 54 in its heyday and she better not screw with me!

"Are we properly attired?" I asked her, noticing a man walking about in a mauve suit, wearing a big red watch.

"Yes, you'll do," she said, laughing.

She led us to a table next to a trio of women in the biggest, blackest fur coats I've seen in years. The restaurant, sadly, was all but empty except for our tables and one large one upstairs. It was all dressed up with no people to go there.

Truly, Terra di Siena is better dressed than anyone who dines there: cork and rubber floors, alternating panels of birch and maple, forms that use round edges when you'd expect angles, techy lighting, leather furniture, a granite tabletop, brick walls and big windows. The staff, inevitably clad in black, is efficient and friendly.

The restaurant has received rave reviews from nearly everyone, so I decided to wait — nearly a year — to visit it. My sense is that the Tuscan spot has acclimated to Atlanta but those with recession anxieties may find it a bit of a shock. Prepare to blow your wad. Wayne and I spent $125, before tip, with only one glass of wine. Is it worth the cost? Mainly. The food is as authentically Tuscan as you'll find in town, but I'm not sure it's better than the fare at Sotto Sotto and Antica Posta.

We started by splitting a dish of rabbit rolled around foie gras, served with a bit of greens and some very good balsamic vinegar ($14). I detested the alfalfa sprouts on the salad but was happy in every other respect. (Someone please remove alfalfa sprouts from the list of edible foods.) Indeed, the foie gras had such a creamy, unctuous texture that I began to wonder if it wasn't actually a pate. I argued briefly with our Spanish server about this until he was on the verge of extracting a liver from the refrigerator and smacking me in the face with it.

For a second course, we split an order of tender pappardelle with duck ragu ($15). I've had this dish maybe a half-dozen times and this was by far the best version in memory. Friends have raved equally about the lobster ravioli with basil pesto sauce ($18).

For an entree, I ordered the filet mignon with cauliflower flan ($26, the menu's most expensive). It's served with a Chianti reduction that at first shocks the palate with its sweetness. Delicious. And we laughed our heads off when one of the big furs beside us refused to eat her steak because it tasted "too beefy."

Wayne's entree was a masterpiece of subtlety — sauteed cod topped with a cloud of chickpea puree, served over spinach ($21). "I can't eat this," Wayne barked at the waiter. "It's too beefy!"

For dessert we picked the lightest things we could find — the day's gelato (star anise) and sorbet (lychee). Both ($6 each) were refreshing and threw us into a nostalgic rant for the gelato of Vivoli in Florence — the world's best ice cream.

Will we go back? Sure, but only if we're feeling flush.

Midtown report

Will Bonner and I checked out two Midtown spots recently — Nickiemoto's and Orange and Scarlett's — and mainly enjoyed both.

Nickiemoto's certainly gets credit for leading the gentrification that has overtaken the area around 10th and Piedmont. The Asian fusion restaurant, sister to the original in Buckhead, features an extensive sushi menu along with dishes with Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese inspirations.

I don't think much of the sushi here, frankly. My spider roll ($6.75) was far more rice than softshell crab — and this imbalance seemed characteristic of all the rolls that Will ordered too. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed my entree of grilled beef tenderloin medallions with a Bearnaise-like "butter ponzu" and bokchoy ($17.95).

We also lunched recently at Orange and Scarlett's (814 Juniper St., 404-877-0040), the latest project of Lucero Martinez-Obregon, the charming creator of Zocalo (which, like Oh ... Maria, is now run by her brothers).

This new venue actually accents breakfast, which I've sampled by take-out. I especially liked the "Beggxican" — a (real) bagel stuffed with scrambled eggs with pico de gallo and queso blanco ($3.25). There is very good fresh orange juice, befitting Lucero's love of oranges. The flavor even spikes a latte, creating a kind of coffee-flavored creamsicle. The coffee is Mexican organic from a co-op in Chiapas.

For lunch, Will and I both ordered the day's soup (bean) and panini — the Italian sandwiches that are pressed and grilled. All of them are meatless ($4.89-$5.49) but we convinced them to add turkey or ham to our choices. We liked our sandwiches, but I'd love to see the cafe add some real Italian meats to the panini.

There also are dessert crepes, including an irresistible one made with Nutella and walnuts ($4.99).

This is a great hangout — a subterranean basement cafe with miles of style, owing to Lucero's first vocation as an artist. But, honestly, what I'm really looking forward to is the opening of her new taqueria a few buildings away. When that happens, Midtown will at long last have back the authentic, straightforward tacos that made Zocalo such a hit in the first place.

Year of the Horse

Chinese restaurants around town will be offering special dinners to celebrate Chinese New Year during the next few weeks. The lunar Year of the Horse occurs Feb. 12, but restaurants often offer dinners at least a week ahead and afterward. After making a few calls around town, I couldn't get too much concrete information from some favorites like Din Ho, Oriental Pearl and Canton House.

However, Pyng Ho (1357 Clairmont, 404-634-4477) did send me an e-mail advertising their dinner, Feb. 13-17. It's been a while since I ate executive chef Steve Jou's food here, but I've thoroughly enjoyed it in the past. It's thoroughly authentic but not as outre as some of the dishes I have eaten at New Year's banquets in the past.

Among the dishes on Pyng Ho's special menu are crispy "pouches" stuffed with Dungeness crab, stir-fried beef tenderloin with double-pepper sauce, chicken breast wrapped with prosciutto ham in ginger and garlic sauce, grilled lamb chops in mustard oil, stuffed crispy duck with mashed taro and baby ginger prawns.

Obviously, this is tame stuff compared to the baby deer liver, sea slug and pork sinuses I've been served in the past.

Voicemail of the week

"Hey, Cliff, I just read you article, 'It's Greek to me.' Talk about bashing a goddamn restaurant! I'd like to say you were trying to tell the truth about this restaurant but at the same time, if I was the owner and had you come in again, I'd probably poison your next meal to give you some major stomach problems. Next time do a little bit better. OK, take care."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail

at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.??

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