Consult a native

La Tavola: from not-so Italian to authentic and much improved

Last week in this space I reminded readers of how changeable the quality of any restaurant is. Today's reason to get fat can become tomorrow's cause of anorexia. But it works the other way, too. Mediocre restaurants, if they are self-critical and undertake improvement, can become good restaurants. A case in point is La Tavola (992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430). When this restaurant opened last year in the location long occupied by Capo's Café, everyone was excited. It was opened by the same folks who own South City Kitchen and the Food Studio, two of our city's more attractive and experimental boutique restaurants.

Like its forbears, La Tavola immediately impressed visitors with its luxe interior. Designer Jose Tazell, whose work at the Food Studio is a quirky masterpiece, turned the rather Martha Stewart-esque Capo's into a sleek statement. From the beginning, a youthful staff enthusiastically presented dishes to diners that — here comes the bad part — almost always disappointed.

All that beauty and good service and nothing especially good to eat! The restaurant, though calling itself a trattoria, seemed more American than Italian — or it seemed to be cooking unsuccessful interpretations of classic trattoria food. It makes sense because South City and Food Studio feature fusion-inspired cuisine. But the recipe did not work at La Tavola, even with talented chef Heath Miles, who has no background in Italian cooking.

Seeing the light (and diminishing clientele), the restaurant's owners decided to hire Joey Masi as a consultant. Italian, with a history of chef's stints with the Buckhead Life Group and at Martin Gagne's Opus, Masi has attempted to bring greater authenticity to the restaurant's cuisine. Because the South City Management Group has another Italian venue on the boards, it was especially important that Tavola improve its culinary act, according to general manager Stuart Fierman.

It's been paying off. Lulu and I both heard very positive reports on the restaurant, so we decided to visit two weeks ago. Wayne joined us and, when we arrived at the restaurant, we ran into three other foodies who had already decided the improvement was significant.

One improvement, besides the food worth mentioning, is that the restaurant offers valet parking some evenings now. Use it. Otherwise, like me, you'll end up paying $7 to park at the Texaco lot nearby. Parking in Virginia-Highland has become a nightmare generally.

As for the food, we did find it much improved. An antipasto platter included a killer selection of meats and cheeses with nice surprises like caper berries ($10.95). Even the olive tasting ($2.50) has improved, with a better and more generous selection. Caesar salad ($4.95) was delicious if over-dressed. Nobody should fail to order the bruschetta ($5.95) made with a decent ciabatta topped with black tapenade, white beans and, my favorite, simple tomatoes and peppers.

Entrées, though beautifully plated, were not quite as consistent. The kitchen seems to excel with fish dishes. Wayne's seared cod, served with soft polenta and a tomato-basil compote, was one of my favorite dishes on the table ($14.95). Herb-crusted tuna ($17.95) was a bit overcooked for our taste. It was served with parsleyed new potatoes, green beans and a salad of tomatoes, olives, capers and onions.

I asked the chef to prepare the dish he considers his best. I was presented zuppa di pesce ($17.95), and I indeed thought it was the best dish on the table. A straightforward serving of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and fish, my bowl included a shallow serving of fragrant tomato broth and lots of linguine. Order it and ask for a bit more broth.

My reach did not extend far enough to the end of the table to get more than a small taste of Luis Maza's grilled pork chop ($15.95), but I was impressed. Big pork chops are making a comeback all over town and most of them are dry and uninspired. Tavola's rocks.

We were less impressed with risotto and pastas. The risotto, a special with mushrooms, was bland and the pasta seemed too oily. Lulu and I were particularly disappointed in the ricotta- and sage-filled ravioli ($13.95) because we'd heard it so admiringly described by others. The large sheets of pasta were tender, the filling was fresh, but it was all under too much butter and reggiano.

We finished with a warm piece of almond pastry topped with fresh fruit and ice cream — delectable and eaten in a flash. So, we ordered a second round of it only to find the pastry rather stale.

Overall, though, I am impressed with the improvements. It is good to see a restaurant really strive to improve itself.

Here and there

Where did Wayne want to go for his recent birthday dinner? To Bien Thuy, still Atlanta's best Vietnamese restaurant by far. I always recommend diners go here and tell the owner, Suzanne, to serve whatever strikes her fancy. Of course, Wayne refuses to dine here if the meal doesn't feature a dish he invented when Bill Clinton was first elected. It's tofu cooked with lemon grass. He calls it "Hillary's Election Special." I much prefer the version made with chicken.

We returned to Ann's Snack Bar on Memorial recently. Miss Ann cooks the biggest and best burgers in town, although eating there leaves me feeling like a python that has devoured a small animal. I enjoyed a "gourmet burger" recently at the new Thumbs Up Diner on Edgewood, though its mushrooms were unpleasantly overcooked. This restaurant is operated by the owner of the old Thumbs Up that closed in Decatur a few years ago. It was one of the area's favorite breakfast spots and is back with a huge menu of breakfast dishes served throughout the day.

I still dine frequently at In the Shade Café, our city's best vegetarian restaurant. But I have to admit that the restaurant's dinner menu is getting stale. I enjoy the occasional specials, but it's time for a menu redo, folks.

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