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Four years later

Woodfire Grill proves that fresh flavors never get old

"It's almost perfect," I said to my friend, Jeff Boyle.

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Jeff was shocked. He's not a foodie and grows tired, I know, of my gasping when he asks for A-1 Steak Sauce, as he did at brunch the other day.

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"You can't be serious?" he said, staring at my insalata caprese at Woodfire Grill (1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055). Finding a decent version of the salad in this town has become something of an obsession with me. I've eaten so much vile, tasteless bufala mozzarella layered with pink hothouse tomatoes and bitter basil that Chef Mike Tuohy's version is a sacrament.

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First, there was the presentation. Ripe circles of heirloom tomatoes in three different colors — red, yellow and green — overlapped snowy, larger circles of bufala mozzarella barely marbled with intense balasmico. The basil peered out here and there. Olive oil was drizzled lightly over the plate. The taste was phenomenal. It wasn't just the exquisite tomatoes. It was the best bufala mozzarella I've encountered in memory: not soggy, not vulcanized, not tasteless, but wet and rustic, slightly sour — an effect at once amplified and countered by the sweet balsamic vinegar.

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I decided to visit Woodfire since it recently marked its fourth anniversary. (Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the official celebration at which guest chefs like Michael Lata of Charleston's Fig joined Tuohy in the kitchen.) The restaurant is unique in the city not just for its good quality but for the culinary heritage it represents.

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Tuohy was really the first to bring our city California-style cuisine, with its high stress on organic and local ingredients, when he moved here from San Francisco and opened Chef's Café a couple of decades ago on Piedmont Avenue in a B-rated hotel. I routinely gave it a Best of Atlanta award for "best post-coital brunch." The city, seriously, has never seen a brunch as good since the Café closed years ago.

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Tuohy never lost his passion for his original culinary inspiration, even during the years he worked for other restaurants following the Café's closing. Now, a booming national interest in organic and locally grown produce makes what once looked quirky here in a city of overcooked and over-salted vegetables seem like the perfection of a great art.

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Indeed, during my visit last week, I ordered the vegetable tasting menu of four courses for only $39. (The restaurant offers a Monday-Thursday early-bird special of three courses from the regular menu for $29, too. You must show up between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.)

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I did add an extra course. I couldn't resist a plate of sliced organic okra, fried in a light polenta coating, served over a very light cider-bacon gastrique. Jeff and I nearly stabbed one another gobbling up the stuff. It's not what your mama used to cook, I promise you.

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My insalata caprese was preceded by a bowl of chilled potato-cucumber soup with Ashland Farms micro arugula. It was hard not to think "vichyssoise," but instead of a chicken stock base, the soup was made with Greek yogurt. A perfect summer dish.

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Following the caprese was my entree, the only disappointment and not a major one. It was pappardelle in a tomato sauce with grilled eggplant and grated Everona sheep's milk cheese. The problem? The eggplant was cut so small, and there was so little of it that flavors were overwhelmed by too many kalamata olives.

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For dessert, I received cornmeal shortcake layered with caramelized peaches and whipped cream. Cooked peaches have never been my thing — I feel as if I'm being fed Gerber's — but these organic local beauties were intensely flavorful and juicy, working well with the dry, crumbly short cake.

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Jeff ordered a la carte, and his entree was the salmon, wood-roasted on a cedar plank and served with a polenta cake and a salad of arugula and tomatoes. I've had this dish many times, and it was as good as ever. Jeff finished with a fig tart that actually surpassed my own dessert.

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Woodfire also now features a café in its front area where diners can graze (somewhat) less expensively. But I feel bound to warn readers: It was uncomfortably warm in that area when we visited about 7 p.m. The main restaurant was cooler, but not as cool as we would have liked. So make your reservation well after sundown.

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Back to Popeye's

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The Masochist of the Week Award goes to ... me! Readers will remember my months-long campaign against the miserable service at the Popeye's on Ponce de Leon Avenue at Boulevard.

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I won't bother to again try to explain my affection for this food. Call it a shortcoming, like Jeff's love of A-1 sauce. I like the spicy fried chicken and the better-than-average red beans and rice. But I had impossibly horrible service week after week. My agony there culminated with my car being broken into in the parking lot. So, finally, I stopped going.

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Well, I went back last Tuesday night. Why didn't I just get on my hands and knees in the parking lot and eat broken beer bottles instead?

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I pulled into the takeout line. I waited a full 10 minutes before reaching the call-box.

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"I see that you have two prices on the eight-piece dinner," I noted.

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"Let me check, sir." Lengthy pause. "Are you sure you are seeing that right?"

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"Never mind, just give it to me, the price be damned."

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Long pause.

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"Our biscuit machine is broke. We ain't got none."

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"Fine, I'll take it without biscuits, with some red beans and rice."

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Long pause.

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"We ain't got no red beans and rice."

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"Fine, just give me four pieces of white meat, spicy, and I'll go home."

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Long pause.

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"All we got is some wings and a leg."

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At this point I was foaming at the mouth. About 20 minutes had passed. I got out of my car and yelled for everyone to back up, and I fled. As God is my witness, I will go hungry rather than go back to Popeye's.



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