Grazing: Out with the old, in with the new

Upscale designs on Wisteria and Babette's

What are we going to do about designer food? Last month, my 22-year-old friend Gonazalo refused to go to the popular Madrid restaurant Lombok with me. When I asked him why, he said, "The food is beautiful, everything is arranged perfectly, but it all tastes the same."

"Damn," I said, "I've written that sentence a thousand times. There must be an international conspiracy under way." (Granted, the criticism has become as hackneyed as the cuisine it critiques.)

"Wouldn't you go just to keep me company?" I asked.

"No, not really," he shot back. "Bad food ruins good company."

The world is full of increasingly sophisticated diners, if only because everyone eats out so often. How then to explain the repeated attempt by restaurateurs to make form triumph over content by serving plates of food that look like sculptures full of sound, fury and very young radish sprouts? Why the decors that turn into cliches before the gold paint has dried on the artificially stressed walls?

I always loved Babette's Cafe, in part, for bucking this trend. Its owners converted a storefront operation into what looked a bit like a dining room for Hansel and Gretel. Woody, charmingly painted and candlelit with a menu of Euro-inspired dishes, it was mainly a refuge from the ravages of trendy design. Now, Babette's has moved up the road to a fancy cottage at 573 N. Highland Ave. (404-523-9121) and its original space at 471 N. Highland Ave. hosts a new restaurant, Wisteria.

Both restaurants teeter on the edge but, happily, don't plunge entirely into the abyss of design. As such, they might be good examples to the many who plunge headfirst into Martha Stewart's pit. I confess I was heartbroken when I entered Wisteria and saw Babette's folksy decor, with its nooks and crannies, completely eliminated. In its place is a big open rectangle, lit very low, whose focal point is a bar. You could almost say it's not designed, but we all know that minimalism to the extent of exposing ductwork is design. You get the inevitable mustardy-gold walls, the exposed beams, the clever lighting. It's OK — wear black and a silver nose ring.

The cuisine here, under the direction of executive chef Jason Hill, is a pleasant if fussily plated version of New American with some significant attention to our regional food. Thus there's molasses-rubbed pork tenderloin over sweet potato souffle, with a relish of Vidalia onions, apples and walnuts ($16.95). There's Charleston-style crab cakes with roasted corn and sweet pepper succotash ($18.95) and a starter of fried green tomatoes with blue cheese ($5.95).

Not everything works. An example is the grilled shrimp and scallops with potato chips (constructed to house whole basil leaves). It's the menu's most expensive starter at $8.95. The seafood is grilled just right but excessively coated in a red pepper pesto whose taste and oily texture overwhelms everything. Cut it by half. This is a true example of overdesign.

Much better was Wayne's simple salad of arugula with grilled apples in a honey-roasted pecan dressing ($5.50). (Wisteria has jumped on the Colonnade-inaugurated trend of a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese. This is appearing everywhere now.)

The restaurant's "iron skillet half-chicken" ($14.95) is a nice respite from fried chicken. Lightly breaded and roasted, it's a bit reminiscent of Maryland-style fried chicken, done in the oven, but juicier with its mushroom-herb broth. The chicken is served over bacon-braised collard greens with corn pudding.

Wayne ordered the perch ($15.95). Here, it's pan seared and served over whipped potatoes with a compote of charred tomatoes and roasted onions. Asparagus spears were on the side. It's a nice blend of flavors.

Are we going back? Absolutely. It's a great neighborhood venue, though a few dishes under $15 ought to be added if Wisteria wants regulars in this economy.

A few days later, I visited the new location of Babette's with my friend Tim from Asheville. The temptation is to say Babette's has grown up, thrown off its funkiness and become a sophisticate. As much as I miss the Hobbit decor, I do think the new venue is nearly as romantic in its own way.

The dining room is gold, of course. It's open and everyone eyeballs everyone else by the light of parchment-shaded chandeliers. The dining room is smaller than the original location's, although there's a big patio. It's intimate.

The menu has remained essentially the same but presentation has definitely taken a leap toward the dramatic — big bowls, stark colors, layers. I started with baby turnips with wild mushrooms in an herb butter ($5.25), spilling out of a bit of pastry. I liked it far better than Tim's artichoke and olive ravioli in wine-butter sauce ($5.75).

My entree was the menu's most expensive item — beef tenderloin with gorgonzola sauce ($21.50). The dish needs a bit of restraint in its presentation. The steak is dwarfed by its garnish of three onion rings big enough to make bracelets for drag queens. The tenderloin itself was nicely cooked, but the gorgonzola sauce disappointed me, being basically a good brown sauce with some cheese crumbled into it. After a month of eating steaks under Roquefort sauces in Spain, I found this sauce a bit too subtle. Ultimately, I preferred Tim's dish — grilled salmon with roasted red grapes, served over leek compote ($16.50).

For dessert, I watched Tim eat chocolate bread pudding with banana ice cream. It's another piece of sculpture, looking a bit like a UFO that's made a crash landing on a hay bale. The bread pudding has lost most of its breadiness. It needs lumps.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.??

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