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Pick a passable pack of peppers

Peri-Peri opens, plus a return to Showtime and ATL dining news

I hate it when the service is sweet and the food is mediocre. I hate it when the restaurant in question is owned by someone whose other restaurants I like very much. I hate it when I have to say so in print.

Peri-Peri (1197 Peachtree Road, 404-892-9292) is the newest in the burgeoning group of restaurants owned by Tom Catherall. Famous in our city for giving us our earliest and best taste of fusion cuisine at Azalea in the late '80s, Catherall went on to open Prime, Noche, Goldfish and Twist. Soon, Shout will open next door to Peri-Peri at Colony Square.

I don't fault Catherall for his effort, but I don't exactly understand why talented chefs get seduced by fast food. You can't walk into Peri-Peri without thinking about Wolfgang Puck's Express down the road. Catherall's concept is less ambitious and mercifully free of Puck's bizarre marketing of his own ego as lifestyle. For being so, one wishes it were better.

The menu is nothing but chicken - marinated, rotisserie-roasted and grilled. You can have chicken sandwiches, chicken burritos, chicken over pasta or salad greens, and chicken straight up with veggie sides, la Eats. The restaurant is named after a popular South African sauce made from an infamously hot chili pepper. The chicken here is marinated in the sauce before roasting. Do not worry about its being intolerably hot. The red marinade is a diluted version, obviously, and it has a zingy, almost vinegary effect. Sauces of graduated heat are available on the side, and even the hottest will be mild to devoted chili heads.

It's certainly cool that Catherall has brought peri-peri to Atlanta (although Peri Piri: Flame-Grilled Cuisine has also opened in Alpharetta, featuring a greater variety of meats). The sauce is quite popular in the United Kingdom, mainly because of a South African chain of chicken restaurants there called Nando's. But the cooking needs work here. In a visit three weeks after the restaurant opened, we found the birds terribly dry. I doused my half a chicken with a bit of the ultra-hot sauce and then poured it on to try to create some moisture. Wayne's grilled chicken over fettuccine was similarly desiccated and hard to eat, even with a fairly liberal portion of the restaurant's "pink" tomato sauce. When I returned to try a chicken-breast sandwich, I had the same experience.

Sides, I'm sorry to say, are lackluster, too. Mac-and-cheese wants to represent comfort, but is comfort really so bland? Collards are tastier and you'll almost want to guzzle the pot liquor to quench your thirst after eating the dry, spicy chicken.

The decor, all red and orange with some cool lithographs of chickens, was supervised by the Johnson Studio, which designs all of Catherall's spaces. You order at the register up front. But even that's a bit confusing. It kind of looks like a crypto-cafeteria, where you'd order and pick up your food down the line, but instead you're told a server will deliver your food. What you're not told is that you need to pick up your silverware, your napkin, your drink and any additional sauces yourself. Your hands are pretty full by the time you get to your table.

But the staff is young and courteous. Indeed, shortly after I got home from the restaurant, I received a call from the manager, informing me I'd dropped my wallet on the floor there. He waited for me to return to pick it up. God knows if he'd do the same had he read this review first.

Here and thereSpeaking of cafeteria service, I returned to Showtime on Memorial Drive one evening last week and had a killer meal - after a series of bland, mediocre ones that I wrote about a few weeks back. I ordered fat, juicy shrimp in an "enchilada" sauce with velvety, tasty black beans on the side. Wayne was very happy with the baked chicken.

The restaurant was full with a good-looking crowd, and a man at a microphone was about to begin some kind of show that I guess explains the restaurant's name. I couldn't bear the thought of rudely walking out midway through the show, but wasn't in the mood to stay, so I ate in a hurry and left. ...

Showtime features soul food and Cuban cooking and, speaking of that, I received this bitchy note from a reader named Nicole: "Sir, I don't mean to insult your taste, but after reading your article I find that your comments and taste in local Cuban cuisine is quite off. All of your recommendations are in poor taste and your history of what came when is also incorrect. So the next time you want to be a food critic, do your research and actually eat at the locations you review. Thank you and good day."

Thank you for not insulting my taste. However, since I do not recommend restaurants in which I have not eaten, only my miserable taste can be blamed. I have no idea what column Nicole is referring to and I wrote her back asking for her own recommendations. No reply, of course. Having been married a century ago to a Cuban woman whose mother and grandmother were fantastic cooks, I think I do have some familiarity with the cuisine. ...

Closings: Big bummer that Bali Indah, which served delicious Indonesian food on Lenox Road, has closed. Also gone is East Atlanta's Pasta Thyme, a funky, fun spot. Decatur's Madras Palace is gone; no surprise there. Green Papaya, an assimilated Vietnamese spot in Marietta, has also gone belly-up, along with Caffe Midtown, a concept far too cool to succeed here.

The indomitable Richard Blais, local king of molecular cuisine, is now helping out at Bob Amick's Two Urban Licks as a consultant. That may explain why I've suddenly begun hearing a lot of positive commentary on the new restaurant. Christiane Lauterbach reports in the January issue of Knife and Fork that Blais is "being groomed for Bob Amick's forthcoming Trois in the Symphony building."

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



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