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Toasty aims at the former Ami

Plus patio serenades, buffets and free wi-fi

When I asked a friend who lives in a building less than a block from Toast (817 W. Peachtree St., Suite E-125, 404-815-9243) if he'd eaten there yet, he looked at me blankly.

"You know," I said, "it used to be Ami — near Halo, behind the old Biltmore."

"Ohh," he said. "You know, I have never been there. It's just not a pleasant location."

I had to agree, although I found it confusing that someone who chooses to live in that area of sprawling condos and apartments would describe the location as unpleasant. Sitting on the patio on a balmy spring evening was pleasant in every way — except for the view, mainly of walls and a postage stamp of lawn on which two tiny leashed dogs battled for a place to defecate while their owners pretended not to notice.

Derron Deraney, owner of Ami as well as Toast, can't do anything about the view, but he has corrected the restaurant's earlier problems. The interior is dramatically improved. Ami's weirdly gloomy atmosphere has been warmed up with greens and oranges and unfinished wood. There's a new bar, replete with the inevitable plasma television screens. The old bar, at the restaurant's entrance, is being converted to a take-out area.

Maybe the most exemplary change is the hiring of the effusive Elizabeth Baker, who left Misto to manage Toast's dining room. Her manner certainly befits a restaurant whose name suggests ebullience. Indeed, the zaftig Baker is the sort of woman whose cleavage wants to be your head's pillow. I can imagine Marcello Mastroianni making Elizabeth his Sophia Loren surrogate. We love her.

The food has been similarly made more convivial. I liked the cuisine of Ami's last chef, Stephan Leed, who has left the city with his bottle of white truffle oil. But the new chef, Drew Van Leuvan, walks a comfortable line between the innovative and the classic. He was a sous chef early in Spice's life but spent the last year or so running his own pasta company, supplying fresh pasta to 28 area restaurants. He burned out on 100-hour weeks.

The menu is now mainly small plates, the vast majority of which cost less than $8. Five of the six entrees hover around the $12 mark. You'll want to gravitate toward Van Leuvan's specialty. A starter of burnished tortellini, awash in brown butter, is stuffed with a puree of fresh English peas and tossed with curried hazelnuts. In a larger portion, it would be excessively rich.

A daily cannelloni is offered; Wayne's featured ricotta, spinach and prosciutto-wrapped grilled asparagus hit with olive oil and spiked with a good balsamic vinegar. The daily soup — asparagus — tasted far more subtle than its iridescent color. The kitchen can lose the garnish of a doughy parmesan cracker, though, the only thing I definitely disliked. Something needs to float in the soup, but not this. Order the chilled leek-potato soup instead. I think they call it vichyssoises up north.

The signature sandwich is a daily changing item called, of course, the Toasty. It's vaguely reminiscent of a soft pretzel's texture, and mine — stuffed with prosciutto, parmesan and roasted red peppers — was chewy happiness. A small salad full of almonds was on the side. Quite a deal for $6. Wayne ordered a piece of caramelized salmon with asparagus and English peas. (Cipollini onions, normally included, didn't make it to the plate.) It was served over a chicken jus, a nice touch.

Desserts include daily made ice creams and sorbets, but we scored a homey strawberry and hazelnut shortcake served with a terrific not-so-homey mascarpone sorbet. A flourless chocolate cake with roasted bananas was good, and substituted for the menu's offering of chocolate brioche, which, frankly, I would have preferred. The flourless chocolate cake has become so much of a cliche that I am ready for Betty Crocker to stage a comeback.

Y'all go, OK?Here and there

I can't give you the address because it's unmarked, and I can't find the phone number. But if you head out Boulevard, before you get to the state pen, you will see a little Mexican restaurant on your left called Taqueria Cinco de Mayo.

I am not suggesting you go here for the food so much. A gordita made with carnitas was greasy and my chicken mole featured a breast that must have been hung out on a windy, sunny day to eliminate every bit of moisture.

If you visit on a Saturday or Sunday late afternoon or evening, however, take a seat on the back porch, a pleasant screened area surrounded by bamboo. Order something simple and listen to the singer. The man, who plays a keyboard, has a beautiful voice, somewhat like Caetano Veloso's. He sings melodic, vaguely melancholic songs without a trace of mariachi brassiness. During my visit, the behavior of eight Mexican boys at a nearby table rapidly changed from boisterous to wistfully nostalgic. Indeed, one of them began singing dramatically along while the others swayed. ...

Reader George Daniel writes: "I've heard you don't usually like buffets, but Swapna on Hwy. 41, north of I-285 (basically across from the old Haveli), is amazing in quality, number of items and price. I doubt they can continue to offer so much for so little, but for right now, it's a must-try for your readers." ...

Reader Jay Moye writes to recommend Octane Coffee (1009 Marietta St. at Howell Mill Road, 404-815-9886) in West Atlanta. Jay calls it hip but friendly, has free wi-fi and features work by local artists, as well as serving some Fair Trade and organic coffees. ... Speaking of wi-fi, it seems that an increasing number of places, like Babs in Midtown, are offering it. Why am I paying $30 a month for it at Starbuck's? ...

And speaking of Babs, its owner is opening yet another cafe inside Peachtree Center Athletic Club, my old gym, to which I am returning. Yes, I've had my fill of disco workouts at LA Fitness, and I am heading back to the old folks' home.

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com



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