Follow the Leeder

Stephan Leed resurfaces at Ami, plus Baraonda

Has Shirley Franklin opened an Office of Aesthetics at City Hall? She should. As attentive as her administration has been to our moral environment, it's high time she train her beady eye on our architectural ambiance.

It's been exactly a year since I paid my first visit to Ami (817 W. Peachtree St., Suite E-125, 404-815-9243) and, while I like the restaurant more than ever, I find its location more appalling than ever. When I visited a year ago, I felt as though the restaurant, in the rear of the Biltmore Hotel, could be located on a space station so grimly nondescript is the architecture of the surrounding buildings. Now, the space station has been expanded across West Peachtree Street to Technology Square, a rambling, hideous development courtesy of Georgia Tech — you know, the school where they teach architecture.

I still find Ami's own ambiance a bit chilly. Little wire chairs are set at dark oak tables atop a concrete floor. There's a huge oak wine rack to add some warmth to the high-ceilinged, nearly cubical room, along with a trippy mural. But it's not the kind of romantic place where you'd imagine fornicating on the tables.

That aside, I have no complaints. The owner, Lebanese-born Derron Deraney, is a warm host. Our server Dale, Waitron of the Week, was entertaining as hell. However, I should admit that he recognized me. Ideally, every critic prefers to eat anonymously, but this happens now and then. As I've written before, though, I've never encountered a restaurant intentionally serving bad food. Being recognized, although it might garner some special service, has never inspired bad chefs to cook better.

But that's not an issue at Ami. The occasion of my revisit was to sample the new menu designed by Chef Stephan Leed, who was last at nearby Halo and, before that, at Commune. I am fond of Leed's cooking. His dishes are sharp-flavored but comfy, often with creamy textures. For example, his homey macaroni and cheese, made with cheddar and asiago, is spiked with white truffle oil. I know. We're all a bit tired of truffle oil — to say nothing of designer mac and cheese — but this dish redeems their ubiquity.

Another starter is a crab cake made with no significant filler that I discerned, served with — talk about your textures — a remoulade, a mild cole slaw and some long slices of pickled cucumber. The day's soup was a fragrant creamy basil-ginger made with chicken stock.

For an entree, Wayne chose lightly tempura-fried sea trout with roasted cauliflower and hollandaise. Again, it was a terrific, almost mathematical formula of textures and flavors, but altogether comforting. Ditto for my rack of lamb, whose four double chops were arranged about a mound of famous cream-cooked Logan Turnpike grits, sauced with a light truffle-shallot jus.

Finally, we devoured a tempura-fried banana in a bowl with brown-sugar ice cream and maple sauce. Bananas Foster via Vermont.

Besides Leed's arrival at Ami, the other good news is a considerable dip in prices. Most entrees are around $15, and most small plates are all well under $10.

Up the street

We also recently dined at nearby Baraonda (710 Peachtree St., 404-879-9962). Nobody in town serves better pizza than Baraonda and, when you count ambiance, it's probably the best overall pizzeria in our city. The restaurant, Wayne said, reminds him of Holland's cozy "brown restaurants" whose walls are stained by cigarette smoke.

The ambiance is decidedly more pleasant than an allusion to a smoker's lungs suggests. There's an open kitchen with a wood-fire oven, and lots of wood and stone. I feel lucky in hitting yet another great server this week. Jeremy ties with Ami's Dale for Waitron of the Week. Like Dale, he was articulate and definitive in his personal choices. Usually, I find it good advice to avoid exactly what a server recommends, but in both cases, we lucked out.

If you order the chewy and crisp rollino starter, it's adequate for two. It's a pizza roll cut into slices filled with scamorza, a cheese curd related to mozzarella, and goat cheese. Cherry tomatoes and arugula round it out. It would be a good choice for snacking at the bar with a beer. We also ordered the classic caprese salad — tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella, a nice one in a city full of mozzarellas that taste like vulcanized rubber.

Pizzas are thin and feature a few powerful ingredients. My favorite here is the one made with proscuitto (a huge quantity of it), mozzarella and Parmesan. It's heaped with fresh arugula. Wayne ordered the Napoletana, a straightforward mozzarella, marinara and oregano pizza topped with salty anchovies.

For dessert, we ordered, at Jeremy's suggestion, frozen zabaglione encased in chocolate. A doppio macchiato was perfect.

Here and there

Zachary Smith writes this inquiry: "What's the best place in town to do the all-you-can-eat-snow-crab-legs thing? Or, if not best, then least bad?" Geez, I dunno. I haven't seen anyone advertise this ritual in quite a while. Maybe a reader in Macon or Vidalia, where such things are probably still popular, could let me know. ...

Beth Hagberg writes to lament the closing of Orange and Scarlett's on Juniper Street, and to praise the forthcoming opening of a second Zocalo in Decatur next to Brick Store Pub. ...

PR goddess Anne Reeves, reported here recently to have left Liz Lapidus Public Relations, has landed at Manning Selvage & Lee. I'm glad she found work so rapidly. I'm sorry she won't be working the restaurant trade any more. ...

Tom Catherall is opening Shout at Colony Square in Midtown. It will feature a menu similar to that of Twist in Phipps Plaza: sushi and tapas. You get it, right? Twist and Shout. "Well, shake it up baby, now ... ."

Check out the "buffet" section of atlantacuisine.com for part one of Patti Davis' amusing review of bathrooms in Atlanta restaurants. ... You'll also find an endless discussion of Blais there, including a review of my recent review. Bitches!

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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