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Tamarind returns triumphant

Name and location changes haven't hurt a bit

It's not usual that one of a city's best and most popular restaurants closes, but that's what happened last fall when construction on 14th Street forced Tamarind to shut down. We were sad. The restaurant's chef/owner, Nan Niyomkul, had taught us the difference in ordinary and extraordinary Thai dining.

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It's true that she and husband Charlie Niyomkul had in the meantime opened Nan on 17th Street, a fine-dining restaurant. Nobody has complained about the quality of often fusion-style cooking there, but most of us remained loyal to the homier Tamarind.

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Finally, the Niyomkuls have reopened Tamarind as Tamarind Seed (1175 Peachtree St., 404-873-4888) at Colony Square. It's the same menu as the former restaurant's, and the space is actually an improvement. It feels more intimate, is decorated from floor to ceiling in a way that evokes culinary pleasure, devoid of clichés trying to pass themselves off as Asian esotericism. Charlie mans the front desk, Nan is in the kitchen (for now) and son Eddie is all over the place.

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Tamarind Seed had literally been open only one day when we visited, but it was running completely smoothly on day two. The staff of beautiful young women, like our server Emma, will make you go blank while you're ordering. (I think Apres Diem now has fierce competition for the most attractive waitstaff.) We did not experience a single delay or glitch, remarkable in a restaurant that was packed a day after opening.

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And the food was as flawless as ever. What makes it so much better than the food at the average Thai restaurant in town? I have no idea how Nan does it, but her sauces are layered in such a way that their flavors echo and reverberate. Part of the effect, certainly, results from the fact that she's not shy about the use of fiery chilies. The menu warns diners about various intensities but, as far as I could see, only moderately hot dishes are available. (Perhaps on request she will turn up the heat.) But the moderate dish here is quite spicy compared with most Thai food in town. The heat doesn't scorch; it tingles and burns slightly, then subsides in the bath of a sauce's coconut milk. You are very awake.

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Wayne is a lemongrass addict and went directly for dishes featuring it. He started with tom-yum-kung, a shrimp soup also seasoned with lime juice and hot peppers. As the first taste of the meal, it is quite a wake-up call to your palate, even though it earns only one chili for its spiciness. His entree was green papaya salad with grilled chicken on the bone, seasoned with lemongrass. The shredded papaya was mixed with ground peanuts, palm sugar and lemon juice. It was served with sticky rice steamed in a banana leaf.

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I apparently was in a shrimp mood. My starter was shrimp wrapped in rice paper and fried, served with a chili sauce with just the right touch of sweetness. My entree was broiled jumbo prawns on sauteed, garlicky spinach with green curry sauce, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and Thai eggplant. Green sauces are my favorite and I have never tasted one as good as Nan's. I'm likewise puzzled by her use of Thai eggplant. I've eaten it a zillion times elsewhere and regarded it as filler, but hers has wonderful flavor, buttery but al dente texture.

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Another departure from most Thai food in town is chef Nan's presentation. The plates are gorgeous in their composition of color and placement; most of them are garnished with an orchid.

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For dessert we ordered the only one available – a scoop of green-tea ice cream with fried bananas. It was fine, but, honestly, I'd rather eat another appetizer.

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If you're new to Atlanta and have not had the experience of the old Tamarind, hurry to visit. Chef Nan will eventually return to her other restaurant. You want to sample her cooking at Tamarind Seed now.

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Yet another Figo

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I was feeling very frustrated. "We haven't received our other antipasto," I said to our server at the newest Figo (1021 Virginia Ave., 404-817-7728).

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"What?" he said.

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"Our antipasto," I repeated. "We ordered two but have only received one."

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"I don't know what you're talking about."

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By this time, I'd figured the server was hard of hearing or perhaps of another nationality and didn't understand my English.

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I repeated the word, accenting each syllable: "Antipasto."

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"I have never heard that word before in my life," he said. Wayne and I looked at one another.

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I pointed at the menu. "Here it is, right here."

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"I'm sorry, sir, but I can't memorize everything on the menu."

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At this point I felt more like a monster for my impatience than stunned that a waiter in an Italian restaurant didn't know the word "antipasto." And, indeed, the server never returned to our table. The manager took over.

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This is the fifth Figo to open since the original Collier Road location became a hit four or five years ago. I loved the original, but meals at subsequent locations have never been up to par.

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Despite the glitch in service, though, our meal at the pleasantly redecorated space, most recently occupied by Pad Thai, was pretty good, especially for the very low prices. A Caprese salad featured decent bufala, intense basil and good tomatoes. The late-arriving antipasto of duck sausage over polenta, a special, was better than earlier experiences.

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We both ordered pasta dishes and had less luck with them. Several of Wayne's potato-stuffed ravioli tossed in a sage-butter were overcooked and chewy. More disturbing was my bowl of penne with "frutti de mare" in a diavolo sauce. Oy. The tuna was tiny cubes. The scallops were ultrasmall and numbered no more than three. The calamari numbered maybe four itty-bitty rings, and the shrimp fit the same pattern. True, the dish was less than $10, but it was insulting.

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We completed the meal with a huge serving of tiramisu.

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About that missing antipasto: Reviewing my receipt – you pay up front – I realized I'd not been charged for it, so the counter person had failed to place the order for it. I mentioned this to the manager. He thanked me for my honesty and took my credit card to charge me for it.



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