Preparing for war

Get your fill at Food 101 and Park Tavern

"All by yourself on this rainy night?" the hostess at Food 101 (4969 Roswell Road, 404-497-9700) asked me on the night bombs began falling on Baghdad.

"Yes, it's just me and my book," I said. As the words left my mouth, I hoped she wouldn't ask what I was reading.

"What are you reading?" she asked.

"Oh, uh," I said, showing her the cover of the book. "It's about castration."

"That sounds interesting," she said perkily, leading me to my table.

I'm not sure how it is that I've never been to Food 101, owned by the same folks who operate Soho and Mangia 101. OK, it may have to do with its being located just south of Sandy Springs, where I grew up. I drive out Roswell Road and I feel my brain going slowly dead as I recall an adolescence mainly spent raging against the "conformity" that I could never quite accommodate.

I can't say it's changed much, really. Food 101 is located in a strip center which also includes something frighteningly called a "medical spa." If you look across the street, you see a big shopping center with signs advertising gyms and aerobics studios. The manufacture of standardized beauty, know what I'm saying?

Food 101 itself is a good-looking restaurant. Its PR hypes it as resembling a 1920s speakeasy. Maybe. What you get is a dark-stained hardwood floor, lots of wood paneling and a very cozy wood bar, leather banquettes, big windows, some brickwork and white tablecloths topped by butcher paper. The staff is young and efficient.

The menu, fitting my retro conformity theme, is a nostalgic collection of comfort food dishes. There are a few exceptions, like duck confit with risotto ($17), but Executive Chef Scott Crawford mainly offers slightly twisted versions of the food your mother would have cooked had she not been popping Valium, aerobicizing and trying to hold down a job.

Starters include tried and true choices like homemade potato chips, artichoke and spinach dip, fried green tomatoes and sauteed mussels (all costing $6-$9). I decided to abandon myself entirely to the theme and ordered apple-smoked bacon "tater tots" ($7). Truth is that I have eaten "real" tater tots maybe twice in my life and pure curiosity motivated my choice. I imagined something like rumaki made with potato lumps instead of chicken livers.

Instead, I was presented a heaping plate of what turned out to be something like balls of mashed potatoes studded with bits of bacon, then rolled in crumbs of some sort and fried. On the side was a balsamic barbecue sauce, a very cool idea, and another less appealing one made of mayo and Worcestershire sauce. Let me warn you. The portion was enormous — enough for two average people — and this turns out to be true of everything the restaurant serves. So, you can also imagine your mother standing over you at dinner, demanding that you eat yourself into a coma.

There is also a menu of soups and salads, including an arugula one made with dried cranberries, bacon and a vinaigrette spiked with red onions and blue cheese ($8). I didn't try it, but I know the restaurant's chicken alphabet soup ($5) is a favorite with many people, as is a butternut squash soup with maple-spiked cream ($6). I'm sure people from the medical spa could be quite content with just a salad here.

Entrees are homey faves. There's roasted lemon chicken ($14), buttermilk fried chicken ($14), pan-fried trout ($16), meatloaf ($14), a braised lamb shank ($18) and a Niman Ranch pork chop ($18). Contrary to my usual habit, I ordered the cheapest entree on the menu, "Yankee pot roast" ($13). I give it mixed reviews. Of course, it was a gigantic portion — two big "medallions" of beef over roasted potatoes, carrots and celery. I'm sorry to say that while the meat was completely tender, it was quite dry, even under its sparse brown sauce. Somebody needs to let the beef sit in its liquid much longer.

For dessert, I chose Belgian waffles with toffee-crunch ice cream and chocolate syrup. Another huge portion — three scoops of ice cream layered with big triangles of the waffles ($6). What's not to like?

My verdict? Much better than I expected, honestly — a good relief from frou-frou cuisine. It lives up to its self-description: "hearty food, rural roots, urban polish." In other words, it's a perfect fit for Sandy Springs, which, before earning its '60s label as "the golden ghetto," was cow pastures and woods.

Back in town

A few days earlier, on the night Dubya made his get-outta-town speech to Saddam, Wayne and I dined at another restaurant I've mysteriously never visited, Park Tavern (500 10th St , 404-249-0001). This is a brew pub in the lower level of the vastly expanded building that once housed Piedmont Park's 1920s-era golf clubhouse. It's a rather dark, subterranean place full of wood. But it beats the upstairs — an architectural monstrosity big enough to host 600 people for private affairs.

Of course the most popular thing about dining at Park Tavern is sitting on the patio which offers a killer view of the park and the Midtown skyline. Alas, it was raining the night of our visit. But Wayne was happy. When it rains here, huge draft beers go on sale for $1 a glass. I don't drink, so I propped Wayne's head up while he enjoyed the $1 special.

The food is typical bar food. It's not bad. It's not great. We couldn't resist the scarily named "black bean nine-layer dip" ($7.99). We also ordered fried oysters served over french — I mean — freedom fries with remoulade and cocktail sauce ($7.99).

"I need to warn you that you're ordering a lot to start if you're having entrees too," our server told us.

"We are old pros at eating," Wayne assured him.

The oysters were quite good — fat and juicy, piping hot in their thin beer-batter coating. The fries, alas, were tepid and hard. The nine-layer bean dip wasn't layered at all. We were disappointed, expecting something served in a goldfish bowl-sized parfait glass, the layers carefully delineated. Instead, the "layers" referred to there being nine ingredients. Served with tortilla chips, I have to admit the stuff wasn't half bad, tasting like a nacho topping without soggy chips at the base.

Wayne was about to order fish and our server discouraged him. "The fresh order doesn't come in for another day. I'd go with something else." What honesty! Wayne selected the linguine topped with jambalaya sauce ($12.99). It was a partial success. The shrimp bordered on overcooked. The chicken was cut into ridiculously small cubes but, overall, the Creole flavor was appealing enough.

I was a bit disappointed with my own order — the top-priced sampler of the restaurant's pecan-smoked barbecue, which it regards as the house specialty ($18.99). Apparently the restaurant's on-premise provider, The Q Company, has won many awards. But my pulled pork was greasy. I give better marks to the ribs, St. Louis-style pork ribs — meaty and tender. Four sauces were put on the table. Avoid the obnoxious plain, sweeter than sweet tea. I like the North Carolina style best, but would prefer it as hot as the chipotle one.

We skipped dessert but hung out to listen to Dubya make his speech. The restaurant went stone silent when staff turned up the volume on the televisions. "Glad I'm drunk listening to this," a man told me. Great place to get plastered, especially when the patio's open.

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

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