East Atlanta additions

Iris and I Love Thai Cafe spruce up the neighborhood

The restaurant scene in East Atlanta has taken a couple of giant steps forward in the last few weeks. Two new rather upscale restaurants, one Thai and one New American, have opened there and both have been packing in customers. Their immediate success may be a comment on how thoroughly that neighborhood has changed from a funky transitional one to a gentrified one.

The more important restaurant is Iris (1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-221-1300). One meal there can't be the basis of a definitive review but I am excited about this first undertaking by owners Alan Raines, Nicolas Bour and Lein Schoe. The restaurant is certainly already the best in East Atlanta and Grant Park, and is worth a trip from anywhere intown.

Hidden beyond the intersection of Glenwood and Flat Shoals, Iris is in a remodeled service station. It features a bar with a menu of snacks, and a dining room that reminds me of the kinds of places you used to see around Soho before zillions of dollars arrived there. Cinderblock walls are painted black, glass garage doors front the dining room and lights are strung across the room in a manner that seems appropriately makeshift for a former garage. A bouquet of flowers is stuck on a pole. Tables are covered in white tablecloths (drearily re-topped with white paper) and a long cream-colored banquette has plenty of pillows for the lower back.

The crowd here is a pleasant mix of area residents from the young boho to the gay and married. Eavesdropping will cause you to hear the same comment over and over: "We are so glad a restaurant like this finally opened here."

The dinner menu features starters such as duck confit with green lentils in a honey-shallot vinaigrette ($7) and thinly sliced veal with a tuna-caper emulsion, tomato and basil ($7.50). I ordered the veal but, alas, it turned out to be unavailable. Instead I ordered the cold water lobster bisque with seared diver scallops ($7.50). The dish was a nice little piece of drama. The server brought a big white bowl to the table with only the sliced scallop in it. Then she poured the bisque from a little white pitcher into the bowl.

"Why do you do that?" I asked.

"It's all about presentation," she replied.

Indeed. And the bisque was excellent — very deeply flavored with a nice sting for the back of the palate. Alas it was tepid, but it's a minor complaint. The scallops are a nice touch. I loved it.

Other soups available include a clear chicken consomme ($5) — cool, yes? — and a butternut squash soup with pepita seeds and creme fraiche ($5). People at a neighboring table raved about the squash soup. There are also salads, including a Caesar ($5.50) that can be gussied up with chicken, fried oysters or grilled shrimp for a few dollars more. Happily the plain Caesar includes white anchovies.

For my entree, I selected the braised Colorado lamb shank with fingerling potatoes, toasted pistachio bits and root vegetables ($15.50). The lamb was literally fork tender, a big serving with pan juices. The pistachio bits are a very nice touch, though I would have liked a bit more. The root vegetables seemed to be mainly carrots. Come on. It's time for parsnips and rutabagas.

Other entrees include roasted free-range chicken ($13.50), grilled Niman Ranch pork tenderloin ($16.50), a whole crispy flounder ($15), cold water lobster risotto ($16.50), a steak ($18) and a daily-changing free-form ravioli. There is one vegetarian entree: chargrilled marinated vegetable kabobs with mint couscous ($9.50).

For dessert, which was an effort after the substantial servings, I ordered a pistachio creme brûlee ($5.50). Yeah, it was all about pistachios for me that night. The creme brûlee disappeared in a flash but I have to say that the nuts on the surface, though adding interesting flavor, seem to affect the glaze negatively. There are several other desserts available, including a selection of ice creams from Jake's.

What else? Service, mainly by women in blue shirts and black pants with aprons, is amazingly good for such a new restaurant. I dined alone, exhausted, under the whip of accelerated deadlines imposed by my dominatrix editor, Mistress Jane Catoe. It was late, after I conducted group therapy and nobody would go to dinner with me. Not a single server said, "Just one?" or "Are you waiting for someone?" Honestly, the place shows enormous promise. Oh, it's open for lunch too. Hooray for Iris!

Down the street, a few doors from the Heaping Bowl and Brew, a new Thai restaurant has opened. I Love Thai Cafe (467 Flat Shoals Road, 404-522-5992) is a smart little restaurant with apricot walls, brick walls and a wall painted gray with silver accents. There's a bar with a couple of phony lamps that look like live flames and the only thing that suggests you're in a Thai restaurant that I recall is a single statue.

The name of the restaurant, by the way, is not easy to learn. It's printed in a kind of silly hieroglyphics: an eye, a heart, a neck tie and a cup of coffee. Get it? I heart necktie cup of coffee? No, wait. I luv tie coffee? No ...

Service, I'm sorry to say, is sweet but braindead. Our server couldn't figure out how to pour water out of the pitcher without filling the glass with ice. We asked him how the restaurant's cuisine differed from that of the countless other Thai restaurants in town and he started talking about the way you can order the food mild or very hot. Try again. Finally the owner came to the table and agreed that the menu is standard.

It is, but we had a very good meal. While a fresh basil roll with shrimp ($4.95) was ordinary, my larb ($5.95), seasoned ground chicken with cabbage leaves, was fresher than most versions I've sampled.

Entrees were even better. I ordered cashew nut chicken ($8.95) and found it disorienting at first. I'm accustomed to thicker sauces. But this lighter version with lightly toasted cashews was a pleasant change. The chicken, a huge portion, retained its flavor, apparently being added to the sauce just before serving.

Wayne ordered the television-inspired "Survivor Thailand" - a seafood dish full of mussels, scallops, squid, shrimp, onions and red peppers in a basil sauce ($12.95). It was also a gigantic portion. Not a single piece of seafood was cooked badly.

What is the deal here? Besides being able to order the food in four different piquancies, dishes are divided into different kinds of sauces and you select chicken, pork or beef. One definitely unusual feature is a vegetarian section, including a pad Thai made with vegetables and four tofu dishes.

The popularity of Thai cooking makes I Love Thai Cafe a very welcome addition to the East Atlanta-Grant Park dining scene. We are tired of driving to Midtown for everyone's favorite Asian cuisine.

As it happens, we also grabbed a quick meal at the Flatiron in East Atlanta recently. Who knew a chicken salad sandwich with bacon and cheese ($6.50) — a dreadful sounding thing — could be delicious? It's actually chopped grilled chicken well seasoned with cumin. A hamburger with bacon and cheddar ($6.25) was nearly as good, made with Black Angus beef. Seasoned fries ($2.75) were crisp and salty. Really, a great bar meal all around.

But the highlight of our meal was our server — a young woman in an outfit somewhere between Dr. Seuss and the goth movement. She was so spellbindingly gorgeous that I could hardly get the words "I want me some fries" out of my mouth.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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