Cruising Collier Road

Visits to Figo Pasta and Malaya

Last week, I came down with the mother of all gastrointestinal viruses. This is my way of telling you that I didn't eat my usual grand quantity last week, subsisting instead on Gatorade and bananas. It's hell to be hungry but afraid to eat.

As I regained the use of my digestive track, I turned first to carbohydrates and beat a path to Figo Pasta (1170 Collier Road, 404-351-9667), the pasta shop that has pleased so many other critics in town. Located in a little strip center, next to a nail studio with enough pink neon to light an Amsterdam bordello, Figo is little more than a couple of counters, some stools and a few outdoor tables. Fresh pasta is made and cooked before your eyes. Owner Mirko di Giacomantonio, formerly of the groovy Ciao Bella, delivers plates to you and — like every small-restaurant chef in Italy — inquires repeatedly about the quality.

The concept is a bit strange. The pasta and sauces are mainly delicious but they are ordered separately without much direction given to combining things in the best way. Eats on Ponce does the same thing, but with much less esoteric offerings. Here you can order wild mushroom, checca, pomodoro, bologonese, chicken and bell peppers, smoked salmon with green peas and vodka, Siciliana and arrabbiata sauces.

Occasionally, you see Mr. Giacomantonio wince. The evening of my visit, someone asked to combine something — a different sauce on a special ravioli — that caused him to go kind of blank. Then he said, "We don't usually combine those two things."

The customer, anxious to please, asked what he should order instead and Mr. G, repairing himself, encouraged him to go ahead and experiment. The delighted customer agreed.

Maybe this is a small bone of contention, but, not being that well-informed about the way the 13 pastas and nine sauces should be combined myself, I'd like a bit more guidance from the menu. I presume the fairly standardized combos that the Italians have developed make sense.

That's my only complaint. Appropriate or not, Wayne ordered fusilli ($3) with amatriciana sauce ($3), a tomato sauce with pancetta which, though awfully heavy, was pleasingly piquant. I ordered what has become a signature special — ravioli filled with butternut squash in a cream sauce with mascarpone and radichio ($9). It's a nice interplay of sweet and bitter flavors, even if most of the textures build themselves into a rather unctuous crescendo.

Wayne started with a caprese salad ($6), a very generous serving of fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced ripe Italian tomatoes and a sprig of basil. My starter, a bowl of minestrone, was excellent comfort and instantly brought back memories of Gianni's in its original location next to a convenience store on Peachtree — what? — 20 years ago or more. That's almost Proustian, yes? A demonstration of how good food unlocks memory.

We took home a serving of tiramisu ($4) and it's a good version — not the over-sweetened type usually found around town.

Figo, which is opening a second location in the spring at nearby 750 Huff Road, can't be beat for the money, though maybe I'm not quite as enamored as my colleagues.

A few days later, feeling well and ready to make up for lost eating, we returned to Figo's hood to eat at Malaya (857 Collier Road, 404-609-9991) which is in the same shopping center as the retro Melting Pot. Penang on Buford Highway is one of my favorite "recreational" restaurants so it's very hard for me to eat any other Malaysian food in town and not draw comparisons.

But you note differences as soon as you walk in. "I don't want it too spicy. I can't take it too spicy," you hear a woman whining as she orders.

"It's not too spicy," the server advises when you place your own order.

"I guess," Wayne said by way of explanation, "that this is very exotic for this neighborhood."

The menu is different from Penang's. Malaysia's cuisine is a fascinating hybrid of Chinese, Thai and Indonesian cooking styles, with influence from colonial powers like the Dutch and the Portuguese. Here, compared to Penang, though, there is a heavy emphasis on Chinese and Thai dishes of the same type you get in countless restaurants in town. Avoid them and stick to the Malaysian specialties.

It's not always possible, however. We ordered an appetizer combination ($12.95) which should be renamed the "deep-fried Chinese platter." Egg rolls were the only thing I considered inedible on the plate, but the batter-fried shrimp, the fried pot stickers and crabless "crab angels" were all immensely unimpressive. There was also shrimp toast and a very peculiar chicken dumpling wrapped in tinfoil that refused to loosen itself from the filling. The best thing on the plate was the chicken satay but even it tasted like it had been subjected to a heavy tenderizing marinade. Geez. There's not even roti canai on the starter list!

We insisted that we have real Malaysian food for our entrees and the server suggested udang bumbu tumis ($13.95). The menu describes it as "slightly battered shrimp sauteed with chef's special sauce, garnished with broccoli." There wasn't a sprig of broccoli in sight, which was fine by me. Nor did the fat shrimp taste even lightly breaded. Mainly, it was shrimp, onions and a few okra pods in a fluorescent orange sauce. It was tasty enough but the sauce had utterly no depth. One flavor, hot chiles, shot through the entire thing.

We also ordered on the server's recommendation ayam goreng bumbu bali ($11.95). (Can't you see Cab Calloway singing the names of these dishes?) The menu describes it as sauteed chicken in a sweet Indonesian Bali sauce. I objected to ordering it at first because I typically dislike sweet sauces with meat. The server insisted that it was just the faintest sweetness played against chilies which she promised, out of habit apparently, would be so mild as to be unnoticeable. Naturally, the dish was extremely sweet, even though it had a tamarind-like counter-note. Basically, with mushrooms, lots of onions and cashew nuts, it's a Malaysian version of the Chinese cashew nut chicken.

For dessert we split a plate of banana fritters coated in honey and sesame seeds ($3.50).

I don't really understand the grand appeal here. The restaurant's lobby is covered with raves from other critics, including a former CL reviewer. You try it and try Penang, and let me know.

Restaurant news
The Good News: Shaun Doty, chef and owner of Mumbo Jumbo, is opening a new restaurant, MidCity Cuisine, this spring in the Angelo & Maxie's space at 1545 Peachtree St. The new restaurant, "an American brasserie," will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and be open throughout the day. The Johnson Studio is re-doing the 8,000-square-foot space. The Bad News: When Doty opens his new brasserie, he will close Mumbo Jumbo, leaving downtown diners very few options for creative fare.

I am sick that Fishbone has closed. No other fish restaurant in town came close to it. ... Mambo has debuted a new menu that features, among other newcomers, a chimichurri steak.

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

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