Virginia's makes a comeback

And so does the Morningside Farmer's Market

For a change, I couldn't be happier. Virginia's (112 Krog St., 404-827-9005), once upon a time my favorite hangout, has made a remarkable turnaround in the quality of its food. Get in your car and go tonight.

A little history: Stephen Kessler and Frank Kroll initially opened the restaurant years ago in a tiny building in Virginia-Highland. Kessler, an artist, created a magical environment of mosaics and hand-crafted lighting. Mainly I went there for coffee and light fare, like a baguette with brie, and just to relax. Then, about three years ago, driven out of Virginia-Highland by gentrifiers-turned-Nazis, the two opened a much more extravagant restaurant with the same name on Krog Street in the reconstructed Stove Works complex.

The restaurant was from the start as gorgeously eccentric as the original. There's a spectacular urban jungle of a patio with a koi fish pond. The interior is a Proustian reverie of heavy red velvet drapes, purple chandeliers, stained glass, a brick wall with the city's largest collection of paint-by-numbers art and ficus trees that drop occasional leaves on your table. Like the original, the reborn Virginia's was from day one evidence that you don't need the Johnson Studio to create a beautiful package.

But there was one major problem. The food sucked. Happily, that has changed with the employment several months ago of Claudia Nesbit, who spent the last three years in the kitchen at Bacchanalia. Prior to that, she did stints at Sundown Cafe and she was the original chef at the vegan In the Shade Cafe, which closed several years ago.

Her menu is mainly straightforward dishes featuring high-quality, seasonal ingredients. Bacchanalia's influence is clear and Nesbit makes no apologies in that regard. "It's a great restaurant and I worked there for three years," she says. "How could I not be affected?"

I've had two meals there and enjoyed every bite. A Tuscan panzanella blended basil, tomatoes, garlic, red onions, cucumbers and a red wine vinaigrette with cubes of bread ($6). I actually prefer another salad made with red and gold roasted beets arranged around a tangle of prosciutto over micro-greens doused with shallot vinaigrette ($6.50). The beets, slightly sweet and smooth as cream, go well with the rather thick-cut, slightly chewy ham.

Another starter, a crab fritter, is borrowed from Bacchanalia. It's lump crab meat, rolled in Japanese bread crumbs, deep fried and served with a tart mango emulsion ($9). Killer.

Entrees also excel. A Cornish game hen ($16) was probably the best I've had in our city. Game hens were one of my mother's favorite dishes and I'm happy to get a nostalgic buzz from their return to so many menus around town. But Nesbit's plump, flavorful bird sets a standard. Mine was served over fresh al dente English peas and toasted polenta moistened by the bird's juices. I asked Nesbit later for her secret and she would only utter one word: "butter."

Organic salmon from Maine was sauteed crisp with an almost custardy interior further played against a bit of saltiness on the exterior ($17). It was served with arugula and slightly tart orange sections in a lemon-chive vinaigrette. Ravioli was stuffed with a heady combination of goat cheese and chopped black truffles ($14). Nesbit turns the volume up with some truffle oil and a buttery wine sauce. Slightly sour roasted cherry tomatoes gave the earthy, fragrant dish a sharp note.

Desserts include a warmed Valrhona-style chocolate cake ($6.50), another Bacchanalia inspiration, though in truth the dish is everywhere these days. What's not to like about cake with a gooey chocolate interior served with honey-vanilla ice cream? An Amaretto creme brûlee ($5) is luscious but not nearly as decadent as the cake.

The restaurant, which is also open for Sunday brunch, has a magnificent bar where you can drink and eat and listen to some of the best recorded music I've ever heard in a restaurant. Kroll, who tends the bar, is Dutch and his Euro taste in music is clear.

br>?Here and there
Whole Foods has opened at 650 Ponce de Leon Ave. (404-853-1681). The grocery, which has mass-marketed itself as an emblem of good health, operates a cafe and sells an astounding amount of prepared food for take-out. You can get pizzas, sandwiches, salads and calzones. Or you can dish up hot entrees and sides at $5.99 a pound.

I ate just over a pound ($6.05) of jerk chicken wings, corn and grilled peppers and squash. A cube of cornbread cost me another $1.14. This is no bargain, really. There are a zillion cheaper and better lunches in Midtown (Olive Bistro, a few doors down, and Mambo on North Highland above all). That said, my lunch wasn't half-bad. The corn was grim but the chicken wings and grilled peppers were tasty enough for a lunch on the run.

97 Estoria (727 Wylie St., 404-522-0966) opened about a month ago in the building formerly operated as Cabbagetown Grill. The interior is unchanged and, for some reason, the bar business seems to have increased 10 times over. It's festive.

The food needs definite work. A steak sandwich featured a piece of meat adrift on the vast plane of an oversized bun. Over-cooked lamb, sliced thin, was piled onto another sandwich with caramelized onions and served with something like remoulade for oiling it up. Visit Alon's to learn how to make a lamb sandwich. Starters, like a couple of inexpensive crab cakes, were better.

I'm optimistic and hopeful since I live nearby.

A recent visit to La Fonda Latina in Buckhead was a good time. The restaurant is still serving really excellent paellas cooked and served in cast iron skillets. They aren't cooked by the book, of course, but nonetheless are better than the average amateurish paella around town. The grilled chicken is still excellent too.

The Morningside Farmer's Market begins its eighth season Saturday, April 12. Chef Shaun Doty, formerly of Mumbo Jumbo and soon to be of MidCity Cuisine, will present a cooking demonstration featuring asparagus.

The Morningside Farmer's Market sets up Saturdays until late fall, 8 a.m.-noon at 1397 Highland Ave. in the parking lot for Eclectic Electric and Modern Primitive galleries. It features certified organic produce from dozens of farmers as well as children's activities, demonstrations by leading chefs and informal performances of live music.

Don't fail to visit Cynthia Hizer's booth to buy the best handmade soap you can find.

A Midtown Italian mainstay, The Big Red Tomato, has closed and will be replaced by the new Balance. The owners are the same folks who operate Gilbert's on nearby 10th Street. The concept, according to PR goddess Anne Reeves goes this way: "Balance will offer a nutritionally balanced, eclectic menu and will be opening in mid-April. With so many diets on the market and everyone succumbing to a new fad, Balance's menu will be the first in Atlanta that allows diners to create their own dishes by combining the proteins, carbohydrates and vegetables."

Groovy! I want the high-protein lasagna and a jelly donut.

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

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