To the east and to the west

Cafe Diem opens in Decatur, Ambra christens the Westside

You have to hand it to Andy Alikbaksh. The man has become a boho restaurant magnate. Starting a decade or more ago with Cafe Diem on North Highland Avenue, Andy proved that grunge sells.

That funky cafe, with its light, inexpensive bistro menu and good espresso, became a favorite of the city's depressed set. Poets, artists and the terminally gloomy French made it their favorite hangout.

Then, a couple of years ago, Cafe Diem's landlord decided the spot needed gentrification — it is now Rue de Paris — and Andy pulled up stakes and moved to Midtown Promenade where he opened Apres Diem. Many of us thought his concept would never fly in a shopping center but damned if he didn't pull it off and in a location that has not worked for anyone else.

Meanwhile, he bought Carroll Street Cafe in Cabbagetown, a quirky restaurant and coffee bar built in the studio of deceased artist Panorama Ray. It was floundering but Andy put it back on its feet. He added a bar and improved the menu. It's now my favorite dining destination in my neighborhood.

Now, Andy has undertaken what may be his most ambitious project yet. He's opened Carpe Diem in the old Atlantic Star location in Decatur (105 Sycamore).

I never visited Atlantic Star but was aware that it was routinely called the most attractive dining space in Decatur, located in an old ice factory converted to lofts. I was joined by my colleague Bill Addison.

I'm afraid I don't really share people's enthusiasm for this space. I love the upstairs bar area, where you enter. It's at once cozy and dramatic. There is upholstered furniture, as well as tables and seats at the bar, which is divided into coffee and booze sections.

The dining room, which is a flight of stairs down but soars upward, is brick and glass — the usual remodeled warehouse industrial design. Somehow, it's chilly, almost institutional feeling. Maybe it's the flimsy seating and the bare tables.

I kept comparing it in my mind to the Food Studio, maybe one of the best-designed restaurants in such a space in our city. I have noticed that Andy's restaurants tend to "grow" decors over time and, in my opinion, Carpe Diem is going to need some considerable fluffing.

The menu here is structured just like the ones at the other Diem and Carroll Street Cafe, though this one is a bit higher-end. The basic idea is to provide a range of choices from inexpensive pastas and sandwiches to a few higher-end entrees. The accent here is on wood-fire grilling, a departure from the other restaurants.

Our food was hit-or-miss, not surprising for a new venue. Bill's mussels ($9) were tiny, chewy and afloat in a broth made with Bass ale. Even forgiving the inferior state of the mussels themselves, I didn't like the heavy sour flavor of hops.

My own starter, the menu's most expensive, was wood-grilled rabbit with roasted acorn squash and white truffle sauce ($10). Sounds fab, yes? But the rabbit was quite overcooked.

"This would be good if it were chicken," I told Bill, who grabbed a bite.

"Chicken," he said.

"I don't know why we don't make it with chicken," a server said later.

We also ordered a side of pommes frites, which were not pommes frites ($4). Instead, they were a huge tangle of shoestring-type potatoes, flavorful for a few bites but too greasy for real pigging out.

I thought our entrees were better. Bill picked a grilled pork chop, served with white-truffle mac-and-cheese and braised greens ($16). I found the "caramelized apple brandy sauce" cloying but forgivable. The chop itself was a bit flaccid. I suggest they head over to Woodfire Grill and watch the staff there at work.

My wood-grilled chicken breast ($12), organic and carrying the prestigious home address of Sonoma County, was better than the pork chop. True, the rosemary au jus was oddly sweet, but I'd order it again.

Other entrees being offered on the menu, which is still being tested, were salmon baked over cedar, grilled sashimi-grade tuna, pan-seared trout and a grilled peppercorn filet with cognac cream sauce. Pastas included a salmon penne and cheese tortelloni. There were a couple of pizzas and four sandwiches, along with salads, including a Nicoise made with fresh grilled tuna.

Desserts? Skip them. Sorry, Andy, but you really need to get a pastry chef and produce some desserts that are on a par with the rest of your restaurants' cuisine.

In West Atlanta

Ambra (1425 Ellsworth Industrial Blvd., 404-352-2888) is the newest restaurant to open in the flourishing West Atlanta section. Not far from Bacchanalia, Commune and Taqueria del Sol, and even closer to Pangaea, Ambra is tucked into yet another warehouse redo — the Lumberyard Lofts.

The owner is Kelly Goggin, who operated the charming Highland Wraps and Pizza Kitchen on Virginia Avenue. The chef is John McGarry, who was at Prime for five years. Their space is at once cozy and dramatic. The usual brick and glass are warmed by a Gaudi-like tile mural behind a bar in front of the open kitchen. Walls are mustard yellow. Red banquettes encircle parts of the room. A blue suspended ceiling covers the bar area.

"This is real nice," my friend Tommy Brown said.

"It sure is," I agreed.

Goggin is doing her excellent tacos and burritos (all under $8) and designer pizzas (all under $9), along with some more complicated entrees executed by McGarry. Mainly we dined very well, with a few glitches.

A special of creamy butternut squash soup ($3.50) was perfect for an ice-cold day. I was less satisfied with Tommy's shrimp and corn fritters ($5.95). The filling was definitely a bit undercooked, leaving it mushy, even though the exterior was brown and crunchy. Maybe the oil was too hot? The fritters were served with a sweet chile sauce and a spicy remoulade. A minor adjustment would make the dish much better.

My entree was also a great wintertime choice. McGarry grills slices of pork tenderloin and serves them over a charros bean stew topped with roasted corn chow-chow ($11.95). Absolute comfort food — hearty, spicy and full of textural and temperature contrasts.

Tommy ordered wood-grilled salmon over chili-cheese grits with smoked-tomato relish ($11.95). We found the fish, which was described as medium-rare, almost raw in a few places but, otherwise, the dish was completely pleasing.

When we mentioned the undercooking, you'd have thought we had claimed there was a fly in our soup. The server panicked, McGarry came to the table, worried, and the dish was taken off our bill. Wow! It pays to complain. I'm going to try that more often. Would this work at Seeger's? "Hey, this seaweed over a roasted grape with jus of Tazmanian fungus is undercooked! I want my money back!"

The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday. There is much to explore here and I'll be updating my opening-week experience soon. It looks, however, like a definite winner. Congratulations to Goggin and McGarry.


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