The tapas tour

Loca Luna and Noche: a relocation and a revisit

People ask me all the time, "Whatever became of Paul Luna?"

Luna gave the city some of its most interesting restaurants, beginning with Luna Si on Peachtree Road. There, he was infamous for ordering diners who dared to ask for salt to leave and eat across the street at Houston's. If you lingered too long at a table and went to the restroom, he stole your chair to hurry your departure.

After Luna Si, he gave the city its first taste of authentic tapas at Eclipse di Luna and, later, Loca Luna. At the latter, he became as well-known for his near-nudity as his cooking. We're mainly talking strip teases on the bar. But I also recall receiving numerous e-mails from outraged diners who were treated to unsolicited tableside dances.

Luna, a follower of Krishnamurti and native of the Dominican Republic, fled Atlanta for Las Vegas and, last I heard, he landed in Maui, where I assume he is cooking while wearing a grass skirt at most.

He did sell his interest in the tapas restaurants, both of which are still operating with separate owners. Eclipse di Luna remains one of my favorite lunch spots. Loca Luna has always been more of a party place than serious restaurant to my palate. Indeed, it was located next to the infamous 24-hour club Backstreet in Midtown for years. But it was forced by new construction to move recently to 550 Amsterdam Ave. (404-875-4494). It's taken over the huge space formerly occupied by the Red Chair in the shopping district called Amsterdam Walk.

"It looks like Old Havana," Wayne kept saying as we entered the cavernous space, nearly empty on a Monday night, like most restaurants in our city. I guess that's true if Havana ever featured a lot of white-washed tables and walls covered in a virtual mosaic of mirrors. A trio was playing salsa music so loudly that our server Brittany kept asking us if we could hear her.

There's a huge bar when you enter and, around the corner, a huge dining room with only a few tables. Most tables are on the enclosed patio. The ambiance really is festive. And who needs Paul Luna dancing nude when you can, as we did, watch a couple get slowly inebriated and accelerate their making out to the orgasmic threshold? We left before they swept the dishes off the table and brought a conclusion to their performance of culinary tantra. The food surprised me. It was very good by and large, and relatively inexpensive. In relative order of my preference, we sampled: "beet lollipops" featuring cubes of golden beets on wood skewers topped with a dollop of goat cheese and some microgreens; lamb meatballs in a tomato sauce seasoned with coriander and cumin, with a touch of mint; slices of grilled flatiron steak, with hearts of palm, arugula and clementine sections dressed with white balsamic and lemon; a ceviche of hamachi, pineapple, piquillo peppers, jicama, jalapeños and apricot vinaigrette, featuring beautiful knife-work; crispy butternut squash empanadas served with lobster bisque for dipping; yuca chips served with a Cabrales blue-cheese "fondue" seasoned with chives and smoked pimenton; and dessertlike caramelized plantains with milk and cinnamon.

For my actual dessert, I ordered a flan garnished with "crumbled" pistachios. Don't miss it.

There's paella on the menu here, too – the only dish that isn't tapa-size.

The restaurant features live music every night. The kitchen is open until 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, until 11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and until 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday. In other words, it's a great choice for late-night dining.

Revisiting Noche

We actually tried to dine at Loca Luna on Sunday night but found it closed for a private Super Bowl party. So we decided to visit Noche (1000 Virginia Ave., 404-815-9155), another well-known tapas venue, for the first time in well more than a year. Except for the perpetually crowded bar, the restaurant was otherwise nearly empty. If only every night could be Super Bowl Sunday.

The food here was enjoyable but not up to either the authenticity or taste of Loca Luna's menu. That's not to say it doesn't feature some novelty, such as tapas featuring Southern tastes. I was immediately drawn to those, including a fried chicken breast with chipotle-spiked mashed potatoes and "natural jus." We also ordered a juicy wood-grilled pork chop accompanied by poblano-seasoned mashed potatoes served in a phyllo wrapper.

Another Southern-style dish was chipotle-flavored pulled pork layered with corn cakes and topped with thin, fried onions. I didn't much care for this dish; the pork tasted eerily like Brunswick stew. The best part about it was the old-fashioned corn cakes. I did like the cornmeal-coated fried green tomatoes, topped with a marinaralike sauce and sliced Manchego cheese.

A marinated-steak taco – basically an open-face creation on a spinach tortilla – was Wayne's favorite. Grilled scallops, wrapped in bacon and garnished with cucumber "confetti," were a bit fatty, owing to the undercooked bacon, but tasted great. Chips – served with queso fundido, a tangy green sauce and an especially smoky red sauce – disappeared in a flash at the meal's start.

I do give Noche credit for more substantial food. What I mean is that you can easily leave Loca Luna hungry but you'll waddle out of Noche.

Here and there

Friends are reporting especially good meals lately at the remodeled Floataway Cafe. ... Dynamic Dish, the mainly organic and vegetarian cafe at 427 Edgewood Ave. (404-688-4344) in the Sweet Auburn District, is now open for dinner 5-9 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The menu, featuring three or four dishes, is identical to the daily changing daytime one. If you haven't checked out this restaurant, it's worth a trip from anywhere in the city.

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