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First look: The Porter Beer Bar in Little Five Points

Remember when it first occurred to you that you were sick of eating tapas? And yet you couldn't resist. One cool place after another opened and you kept going. You knew you were spending too much money by eating "light." But you couldn't stop yourself. You love tapas. You hate them.

Well, one way to break a habit is to develop a new one. Say hello to the gastropub. From East Atlanta to Alpharetta, the gastropub – the British-born hybrid of the classic pub and a good restaurant – is overtaking us with the same ferocity that tapas bars did.

Why would this be? For one thing, the profit margin on alcohol sales is much higher than on food. Both gastropubs and tapas bars are usually first and foremost places to drink. But unlike traditional bars, the gastropub doesn't require you to go elsewhere to have a gourmet meal. You can successfully satisfy several of your addictions under the same roof, without eating typical bar food.

The latest gastropub to open is the Porter Beer Bar (1156 Euclid Ave., 404-223-0393) in Little Five Points. Its opening has been occasioned by a lot of publicity. The AJC published a flattering story by John Kessler about the way owners Nick Rutherford and Molly Gunn have opened the place with little money and a lot of sweat.

The Porter is also attracting attention because the two, who are engaged to be married, are both alumni of Seeger's, the defunct Buckhead restaurant that made many best-in-America lists. Rutherford cooked at Seeger's, went on to Quinones at Bacchanalia and then burst into exotic view at the Chocolate Bar in Decatur.

At 28, he is without question one of the city's most interesting and talented chefs. Gunn, who smiles more than any restaurant owner I've ever seen, left Seeger's for the fascinating but quickly defunct SAGA and then joined the team at the Flying Biscuit. Their sous chef, Austin Dreier, is also a Seeger's graduate.

The pub occupies the original Bridgetown Grill space. It's been through several other incarnations but the shape is unchanged. The long, skinny front room that contains the bar leads to a multilevel dining room full of booths. The decor's highlights range from a fire hydrant to stacked luggage (reiterating the porter theme). It's very British.

I tried several times to get into the Porter during its first few days and it would have been easier to get into John McCain's financial records. So we returned early on a Sunday evening when there was no wait, but the place was mainly full anyway.

Our food was terrific – as were the prices. Only a couple of items on the menu cost more than $10. My first surprise was a starter of brandade, one of my favorite substances on the planet and rare on Atlanta menus. The Provencal specialty is pureed salt cod with olive oil, milk and potatoes.

When I asked our server about something, she said she'd have to ask Rutherford, who immediately bolted out of the kitchen. I remarked that I can rarely find brandade in Atlanta and he said, "I know!" I wondered how he came to put it on the menu. "They sent me the wrong fish for our fish and chips, so I had to figure out something to do with it," he said. "So," I asked, "the menu changes regularly?" He said, "It all depends."

Wayne's starter was a funny take on Caesar salad. It featured a boat of Romaine that had been grilled slightly and was filled with white anchovies, aged Asiago and garlic croutons. It's a giddy deconstruction with all flavors amplified. Richard Blais would approve.

For an entree, Wayne chose shrimp and grits, gussied up with Portobello and crimini mushrooms. The grits were creamy with white cheddar. I have one objection: the use of white truffle oil. I just want it to be retired for a few years, along with mac-n-cheese, Valrhona chocolate cake and ... um, many tapas.

My own entree was a special – beef stroganoff with fresh pasta made on the premises. The dish included five meatballs (instead of the usual chunks of beef). It was their complex and layered flavors that prompted the question that brought Rutherford out of the kitchen. He recited about a dozen ingredients. The bowl was also filled with a rich mushroom sauce. Order it.

I wasn't surprised, considering Rutherford's most recent gig, that desserts feature lots of chocolate. We ordered the brownie with chocolate stout ice cream laced with salty caramel. Yeah, it was a bit too Valrhonaesque for my jaded palate, but just to be nice, I licked the plate clean.

The crowd is of mixed age here, though definitely toward the younger. More than 100 draft and bottled beers are offered, along with 12 inexpensive wines. The recorded music – including the Selmanaires, Wayne's favorite local group – is congenial. The service is virginally sweet. Let me hear your impressions.

Here and there

I have been returning compulsively to La Pietra Cucina for lunch. My favorite so far has been a special of grilled veal hanger steak, sliced and placed over Swiss chard, which in turn topped a layer of polenta. It was all surrounded by chopped, oven-roasted tomatoes and kalamata olives.

Joli Kobe, the Sandy Springs bakery that has been open more than 20 years, has opened a cafe a few doors down from La Pietra Cucina in Peachtree Pointe at 1545 Peachtree St.

Before Atlanta's traffic turned into Los Angeles, I used to go to the Sandy Springs location frequently, so I'm delighted they've come to Midtown. The cafe serves sandwiches on its own breads, including one of the city's best croissants. There is usually a sandwich special and a hot special. One day last week, I ordered crepes stuffed with chicken and mushrooms, layered with melted cheese and topped with salad. Ordering the dish, I felt like I was returning to the Magic Pan in the late '70s, but it was good – fluffy, folded crepes, juicy chicken, earthy mushrooms, sweet tomatoes, sharp cheese.

Be sure to check out the pastry counter. It will make your eyes instantly fat.



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