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Chomping through 2002

And choking down some reader feedback

The big news about Atlanta restaurants in 2002 is that there is no big news. Like every other sector of the economy, restaurants are suffering. Business is down and openings have slowed dramatically. Indeed, the great majority of restaurants are now opening in Atlanta's suburbs — where the real estate is cheaper and the money flows a bit more freely.

The city's best example of a restaurant that I think represents strong culinary trends and has effectively responded to the down-turned economy is Mike Tuohy's Woodfire Grill. Tuohy, one of the city's seminal chefs who had a profound influence in the '80s with his Chefs' Cafe, had a hell of a time getting financing for his new restaurant, which has been a huge hit. Indeed, in a time when the big-money guys are hiring the Johnson Studio to produce dramatic interiors, Tuohy did his own design work. And that was no small undertaking in a very retro building occupied by Marra's Grill for 20 years.

More important, Tuohy's cuisine represents the strongest trend in contemporary dining. A native Californian, Tuohy cooks in the tradition of that state's northern wine region. Ingredients are seasonal and organic. Cooking methods are simple, like the featured wood-fire grilling and rotisserie. But, unlike the comfort food that has been popular the last few years, Tuohy's cuisine is not simplistic. He continually experiments, perfecting and heightening flavors but without resorting either to the tedious towers and drizzles of fusion cuisine or the clever comfort of over-decorated mac and cheese and whipped potatoes.

Similar straightforwardness is featured at Kyma, the Buckhead Life Group's pricey new Greek restaurant where the emphasis is on flawless, simple cooking of seafood and classic Greek noshes. (Wood-grilled octopus is a spectacular memory for me.) Oscar's, near the airport, similarly offers comfort without cliche. Sotto Sotto continues to set the Italian standard in that way: sheets of pasta, for example, wrapped around ground artichokes with a bit of cheese and a simple sauce. Babette's, Five Seasons Brewing and the new Ami and Ambra are also practitioners of this straightforward but interesting cooking.

Others need to get a clue. Commune, Spice and Cavu continually struggle with the desire to be clever, producing definitely good dishes now and then but just as often collapsing into excess. Of course Commune and Spice both have hired new chefs and Cavu recently switched to a less rococo seafood menu.

Seafood continues to rule. I love the new Indigo, with its French preparations of fish, including tableside boning. Blue Trout brings Tommy and Fariba Todd, two of the city's most prolific restaurateurs, back to Midtown. Sushi is everywhere. MF Sushi Bar in Midtown is one of the best to open in years — a gorgeous dining room with high-quality sushi and some very novel rolls. Ethnic venues specialize in seafood too — like the Colombian Atlantic Seafood in Lawrenceville and countless Mexican spots, like Mariscolandia along Buford Highway.

The tapas trend shows no signs of slowing. Sweet Devil Moon (Peruvian), Pura Vida (Puerto Rican) and Eclipse de Luna (Spanish) are popular. The new Sala Sabor de Mexico is a gorgeous and new attempt at Mexican-style tapas, but the food falls mainly flat. Meanwhile we can look forward to the opening of Tom Catherall's planned tapas venue.

Thai restaurants continue to proliferate with Tamarind still retaining the No. 1 spot, though, for the money, Little Bangkok remains my absolute favorite. The restaurant, tucked into a little commercial strip on Cheshire Bridge Road, serves some esoteric specials you won't find anywhere else.

Perhaps the most interesting new wave of ethnic restaurants is Indian. A new standard was set in the last year with the opening of Madras Saravana Bhavan in Decatur. The restaurant, all South-Indian vegetarian, displaces even my former favorite, Udipi and probably deserves to be called the best vegetarian restaurant in the city, regardless of ethnicity. For meat dishes, I still like South Indian Cafe and Zyka, which seems to specialize in particularly spicy cooking.

As far as seasonings go, I've noticed a fondness for flavored vinegars popping up everywhere, a challenging recent example being braised collards heavily spiked with vanilla-flavored vinegar at Halo.

The artisanal movement — organic produce and meat, boutique cheeses — continues at Mumbo Jumbo and Bacchanalia (including its retail operation, Star Provisions), as well as at Woodfire Grill. Bakeries also continue to proliferate but the best are still The Bread Garden and Alon's. For handmade chocolates, nobody beats Maison Robert in Buckhead and the best cookies are still at Mondo. The best artisanal Italian goods are at Salumeria Taggiasca in Sweet Auburn Curb Market.

The trend I'd most like to see inaugurated in the coming year is more professional service. In a suffering economy, you'd think restaurants could employ sufficient servers and train them well. But, outside the big-ticket restaurants, a good server is an increasing rarity.

Feedback

I received this chatty e-mail from Eric of Criminal Records:

"Regarding your review of Carpe Diem, I couldn't have agreed more on every point (except the meaty stuff, since my wife and I are pesce-tarian). I'm so desperate for this restaurant to work, as it's about one mile from our house, and we love Carroll Street Cafe.

"The salad was wonderful — bitter greens, pear, vanilla vinaigrette. Bread basket was fun. Beer, fair priced ($4) and big-sized. I was really pleased to drink Stella Artois on draft.

"But the seafood special was way too oily and I had to send the tuna back as it was weirdly undercooked. They offered to take it off the bill, which was a nice gesture, seeing as how the rest of the plate was very decent, but before we left they brought me a piece of the tuna, correctly prepared, but a little out of place without the accompaniments. The dogs loved it.

"Vegetarian pizza (spinach, ricotta) was all right, tasty and bland at the same time. I appreciated the ricotta in lieu of the over-used goat variety, but, alas, blandsville. Garlic anyone?

"And the biggest tragedy of all, desserts. I don't care if it's from Alon's if it [tastes] two days old. A dedicated dessert chef be a wonderful addition. I hope he listens to you.

"Have you checked out the sandwich counter at La Piccolina in Avondale? So amazing, I go twice a week."

This is from Stephen Seals:

"I just wanted let you know that I recently dined at Wisteria and my meal was flawless. I'm a hyper-critical ball buster when it comes to dining out, and I must say that my recent Wisteria experience ranks as one of the top three meals that I have experienced in Atlanta. I had the corn soup for a starter and the skate wing with grits and asparagus for dinner. Having never experienced skate wing before, I must say that the dish was extraordinary. The kitchen over there appears to be in 'the zone.'

"I just have to vent about Soto. I dined there not too long back after reading a number of thoroughly glowing reviews. Yes, the sushi was indeed very good. However, my visit to Soto came directly after a two-month stay in California, and based on the quality of sushi I commonly found out there, I'm not so sure that Soto's shameless praise is warranted. I can think of two sushi chefs I encountered in 'hole in the wall' sushi establishments in California that would positively hand Chef Soto his ass ... wrapped in rice and seaweed. And to boot, service was always friendly and attentive.

"Before I come off as being a snob, or elicit some kind of 'then move to California' response, I guess my point is that Soto isn't doing Atlanta any favors by offering such an alarmingly sterile atmosphere and unfriendly service."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??



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