'Authentic' food biases

In search of the real at Mu Lan, Mesob Work International Cafe and more

In a culture that increasingly blurs ethnic difference but also tends to stereotype it, "authenticity" is a word whose use has become problematic. For example, I reflexively tend to call any ethnic restaurant on Buford Highway "authentic," instantly stereotyping it, whereas an ethnic venue in, say, Virginia-Highlands, immediately becomes suspect to me as "impure."

But this distinction — actually an ordinary prejudice — doesn't do much to encourage creativity. It locks the Buford Highway place into the expected reiteration of the same dishes. And it tends to immediately disparage any effort by the Virginia Highland restaurant to blend the ethnic and American styles. But, really, what can you legitimately even call "ethnic" in an ever-browning America?

This is the dilemma with which a new restaurant like Mu Lan (824 Juniper St., 404-877-5797) confronts me. It has been opened by Tom Huang, who owns the Chin Chin restaurants around town. Actually, Huang sold the Chin Chin on Ponce de Leon Avenue a few years ago and his sales contract forbade him from opening anything in Midtown until now. The Chin Chin restaurants, especially the original Buckhead one, are famous for their quality authentic cuisine but it's definitely geared to American consumers. There's nothing very "weird" on the menu.

The new restaurant, which is a partnership with Michael Mitchum, is certainly Huang's most glamorous. It is extraordinary, really. Designed by New York artist Bong-In Kim, who happened to be in the restaurant the evening I visited, Mu Lan is the most evocative Chinese restaurant I've ever encountered in Atlanta. Colorful rubbed walls lettered with calligraphy, glass dividers, interesting effects like a deconstructed chimney, hand-crafted lighting — every detail glistens and it's all in the container of a lovingly restored Victorian house whose wood patinas are played dramatically (as in the red-lacquered floors and stripped window frames).

The cuisine itself, though competently executed by Chefs John Kuan and Alex Lai, is, alas, less interesting than the decor. A starter of a soft-shell crab cooked salt-and-pepper style ($9) was killer, but corn and crabmeat soup ($2 for two) was in dire need of salt and pepper itself. Wayne wanted to ask for hot chili sauce to enliven it, but, imagining the stuff turning pink, I objected, even though I agreed the dish was amazingly bland.

I'm sorry to say the same for Wayne's seafood served over crispy noodles ($17). The seafood — scallops, shrimp, fish and lobster — was cooked perfectly but married to one of those sauces that seems mainly flavored by cornstarch. He insisted on the hot chili sauce at this point and it did make it more palatable. I liked my own dish — strips of tender filet mignon with vegetables in a slightly sweet sauce ($17).

The menu is confusing. The dinner menu the evening of our visit heavily accented seafood, was a bit pricey and rather limited. But our waiter assured us we could order any favorite Chinese dishes and the kitchen would prepare them. When I picked up a copy of the menu on the way out, it included nearly every Chinese dish you could think of. So, I'm assuming the restaurant is still trying to find its niche. Delivery is available, by the way.

Midtowners will enjoy this addition near Cavu and Spice. Check out the restroom where you hear Enya and sniff ginger-melon incense. Ah, it's so New Age.

Way authentic

You will likely not question the authenticity of Mesob Work International Cafe (3701 Clairmont Road, 777-220-2575), an Ethiopian hole-in-the-wall where Wayne and I dined New Year's Eve. The restaurant was empty except for us.

The cafe, furnished with salvaged fast-food tables and the head of a rat-sized deer with antlers, is in the back of a grocery and gift shop featuring knickknacks and foods from Ethiopia. The owner is a delightfully gregarious man who gave the transfixed Wayne an education in Ethiopian politics, including an account of the horrific death of his two brothers at the hands of Russians. Ethiopians are the sweetest people on the planet, it sometimes seems to me, and beautiful to the eye too.

The food is mainly the usual, including scary stomach and such. We ordered a huge sample platter of chicken, beef and lamb with vegetables ($16) along with a couple of sambusa ($1.25). The latter, though they had tasty meat filling, were served virtually cold but burnt around the edges.

We loved the food on the platter, though, and were excited to encounter some dishes we'd not had before. There was a cheese, snowy white and almost a cross between feta and cottage, next to the same cheese spiced with chilis. There was also a bland cooked meal, which we'd never encountered. Wayne rhapsodized it, calling it Ethiopian grits, waxing poetic about the nearly archetypal popularity of our own culture's favorite made from ground corn. I could hardly bring myself to inform him that it was wheat, not corn, he was eating.

Other dishes on the plate — lamb cooked on the bone, chicken with hardboiled eggs, beef with grilled onions, ground meat of some type, collards, lentils and another bean — were all delicious, though I will never be fond of injera, the spongy bread with which you pick up and eat this cuisine.

There are better Ethiopian restaurants in town, but few that offer such an outre experience. I really enjoyed hearing the weird pop music while I watched sports on the television and Wayne received indoctrination.

Tres authentic

I know that my former colleague, Elliott Mackle, was very fond of Savage Pizza (484 Moreland Ave., 404-523-0500). Wayne loves it too. In fact, his classmates dined on the stuff regularly until Emory purged the expense from its budget, leaving the poor epidemiology doctoral students to fend for their own.

I'm tempted to say that Savage has inherited the creative lunacy that once marked Rocky's. You get flawless classic pies made with homemade sauces, including one of the best marinaras in town, or you get some really kinky stuff.

I, being of that persuasion, chose the Pud Thai Pie ($8.75). What an absurd but delicious pie. Though it could have used more of the peanut sauce spread on the chewy crust, it was otherwise terrific. It featured roasted chicken, along with sauteed shrimp, peppers, red onions and cilantro. It was scattered with peanuts.

Wayne ordered the Hawaiian-inspired Mai Pai with the Cajun-accented red-pepper sauce, Canadian bacon, Italian pepperoncini, mozzarella and provolone ($8). Does it get any more authentically weird than this? I don't think so.

Here and there

I enjoyed a lunch at Joe's on Juniper recently, even the white-trash poppers, except for the obnoxious laughter of someone sitting at a nearby table. Imagine explosive guffaws of totally fake laughter every 30 seconds.

The new Orange and Scarlett's has opened next to Willy's in the old American Legion building on Piedmont adjacent to the park. The creperie and ice cream shop also serves good sandwiches. The phenomenal ice cream, not to be missed, is the Georgia Pine. It's flavored with feta cheese, honey and pine nuts — a very adult flavor that will become a quick craving.

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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