Back to East Atlanta
Threatened with decline, neighborhood stakes claim to two eateries worth visiting
East Atlanta, that most recently gentrified intown area, has fallen on some hard times. Not a year ago, it looked like it was on the way to becoming another Virginia-Highland. You couldn't find a parking spot on Saturday night. Its restaurants required waits and a handful of candle and soap shops did a brisk business.
From all but a purely economic perspective, it was a disturbing scene. The historically black shopping area suddenly became popular with slumming white suburbanites who made dinner at the Heaping Bowl and Brew feel like an experience of tourism. I'm not sure why, but now the tourists seem to be staying away in droves and parking is plentiful again on Saturday nights.
The problem is, of course, that a few restaurants have already closed and other businesses are feeling threatened. The area will probably have to get used to drawing its trade from the Grant Park, Ormewood and Brownwood neighborhoods. Restaurants that want to attract long-term clientele from other areas of the city will have to market more than self-conscious hipness.
In my own view the best restaurant in East Atlanta, by a mile, is Pastificio Cameli (1263 Glenwood Ave., 404-622-9926). I eat there at least once a week, sometimes twice. I have practically nothing negative to say about the place.
Mainly, it's the food and relatively low prices that keep me going back. The young owner and chef, George Cameli, first impressed us with his Cameli's Gourmet Pizza Joint (699 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-249-9020). When Pastificio opened, it also featured a few pizzas, but, as the chef hit his stride, he eliminated these from the new restaurant's menu to feature more of his creative pastas and secondi piatti.
The menu changes seasonally and there are daily soup and fish specials. Normally, I start with the bruschetta, a plate of toasted bread with four different toppings ($3.75). I prefer the simple diced tomatoes above the others, though the parsley pesto is a nice break from the usual basil. The only one I don't care much for is the black olive pâté, which needs to be made with a better quality olive.
My favorite pasta here — one of my favorite pastas in the city, actually — is the tagliatelle verdi with sautéed radicchio, fontina cheese and black truffle oil ($11.95). It's a really marvelous blend of flavors: bitterness, a slight muskiness and slightly sharp cheese.
The tagliatelle, made on the premises, is also served with calamari sautéed in a tomato sauce spiked with white wine or with a creamy sauce full of porcini and cremini mushrooms ($11.25). Cameli makes a flawless ragu sauce that he pours over wide buckwheat noodles ($9.75). I am less fond of his ravioli, though the gorgonzola sauce used with one occasionally makes me compromise my preferences.
I feel that Cameli is giving the city some especially wonderful wintertime dishes. There's a classic chicken cacciatore — a huge serving of chicken long simmered on the bone with vegetables and white wine ($14.95).
There's also pork stewed with porcini mushrooms and juniper berries ($14.95). Polenta makes a perfect sop for the dish's sauce (which could use more juniper berries, actually). Finally, there are grilled lamb chops with a tarragon and red-wine vinegar sauce ($15.95), and the daily fish, which is usually simply grilled.
If it's been a while since you visited, it's time to go back.
Among the restaurants that have closed in East Atlanta is Kiva, a disappointing experiment in tapas. It has been replaced by Twang. I've only dined at the new restaurant once and find it a significant improvement over the earlier tenant.
The menu here is a bit difficult to describe. During my meal, one of the owners was making table rounds in a baseball cap, sipping a drink, and I asked him if he was also the chef. I got a five minute aw-shucks-I'm-not-a-chef-I-just-like-to-cook reply that completely disoriented me.
"I'm confused," I said. "Are you the chef or not?"
"Yeah," he finally said.
There's no reason for him to be apologizing. Much of the food is very good. He and his business partner are from South Carolina and their food is "twangy Southern" cooking. He confesses that he's cooking recipes from "church members back home," but I'm happy to say that there is no macaroni and cheese or green bean casserole on the menu.
Starters like little cakes of fried black-eyed peas topped with sour cream and red onion-jalapeo jam ($3.99) and fried green tomatoes layered with balsamic onions and goat cheese ($4.99) hit the spot. I also liked the seared andouille sausage paired with a polenta-like cake made of grits under a corn relish ($4.99). It was sculpted in the shape of an arrow and made me laugh.
"Supper" dishes include a whole fried catfish with an oddly tasty strawberry sauce ($11.99). The catfish borders on greasy but you'll eat every bite. Avoid the baked chicken stuffed with granny smith apples and Virginia-cured ham ($12.99). It's a rubbery breast and straight out of church-social hell. However, it is served with a killer baked yam.
I'm sorry to say that service is not very good at all. We had to ask three times before we got any water. Food arrived so slowly I had to get up and take a few strolls around the dining room.
But I'm genuinely hopeful. It is good to see someone new in town working with our regional cuisine!