Vintage and Vernal

South City turns 10, Osteria opens

It's difficult to believe South City Kitchen (1144 Crescent Ave., 404-873-7358) has been open 10 years. The restaurant was the first in our city to offer the new Southern cooking popularized by television cook Nathalie Dupree, former governor's chef Scott Peacock and restaurateur Elizabeth Terry of Elizabeth on 37th in Savannah.

South City was also the first venture of Fifth Group Restaurants, which has since opened The Food Studio, La Tavola and Sala. Located in a 1920s bungalow, South City initiated the gentrification of Crescent Avenue, which, prior to the restaurant's opening in 1993, was not good for much more than committing crimes. Now the entire area is humming with restaurants and bars. Parking is your basic re-enactment of the Odyssey.

In all candor, I've never been 100-percent fond of South City. I've had good meals there but never consistently good ones. At times, the cooking has seemed excessively interpretive in its effort to contemporize our regional cuisine. Further, I've found the decor a bit chilly — at least the upstairs with its suicide-tempting loft.

Forget all that. A recent visit produced one of the best meals I've had in weeks. I dined a week before the winter menu was expiring. But if my meal was any indication, Executive Chef Jay Swift and Sous Chef Todd Mussman should produce a spring menu to blow your socks off. I was grateful, too, to be seated in a front corner of the glass dining room downstairs. Our waiter, whoever he was, is Waitron of the Week for enduring my especially bad mood and then rescuing a book I left behind.

Meals begin with a basket of bread featuring sweet, fragrant cornbread and fabulous fat biscuits with a taste of bacon. OK, maybe it's lard. I'm not sure. Wayne's starter, which I've enjoyed before, was sauteed chicken livers with caramelized onions, creamed corn and brioche toast ($6.50). My cornmeal-crusted catfish, sweet and crunchy, was served over spicy braised mustard greens with hot pepper jelly and a scattering of toasted peanuts ($7.50). Its description may sound rococo but remembering it makes my mouth water.

My entree was the best beef brisket ($16.75) I've had in memory. Fat slices of the tender brisket were served pot-roast style in a dark, flavorful gravy that melted into black-truffle grits full of parmesan. Buttery baby carrots rounded out the plate. Wayne's roasted monkfish ($18.50) with applewood bacon, savoy cabbage and fingerling potatoes was a tour of textures and delicate and earthy flavors highlighted by a saffron cream sauce.

For dessert, we split a slice of warm chocolate pecan pie with ice cream ($6.75), pure Southern comfort, and our nameless but excellent server made us double macchiatos.

You would need several visits here to fully test the menu, but if my single visit last week was an accurate indication, the chefs have hit their stride. I have to hand it to Fifth Group's management for their dedication to improvement at all of their restaurants. They also deserve kudos for their architectural sensibility. Happy 10th anniversary to South City Kitchen!

New in Va-Hi

Osteria (832 N. Highland Ave., 404-897-1414) is the newest restaurant in the city's Italian Renaissance. Located in the building that most recently housed Caribou and Taqueria del Mundo, the restaurant offers a menu of antipasti, pasta and pizza.

My first impression is that the primary gimmick here seems to be authentic fare but at prices well below those of, say, Fritti and Baraonda. As such, Osteria fills a gap. There's no really good reason a pizza topped with fresh arugula should cost any more than most others. At Osteria, you can order a generously sized individual pie topped with prosciutto and arugula for $9.

But how does its flavor compare to the pizzas at Fritti and Baraonda? A notch below. The proscuitto and arugula pie, cooked in a Wood Stone gas oven, held plenty of the main ingredients, but the tomato sauce disappeared into a lifeless crust that was a bit thick for my taste. On the other hand, the crust of a gorgonzola pie with spinach and fresh tomatoes ($8) consumed during a second visit was exemplary. Honestly, for these price points, I'm not going to hold the pizzas to Marcella Hazan's standards. I'd happily eat either again and laugh all the way to the bank. Well, I'd do that if I could find a parking space anywhere near the restaurant.

Wayne ordered spaghetti puttanesca ($7), one of my faves. It's a light tomato sauce made with capers and anchovies, along with olives and pecorino. Truth is that the sauce was watery, almost clear, at the bottom of the plate. Though its flavor wasn't bad, it wasn't as spicy as a dish named after the Italian word for "whore" needs to be. Wayne, who should have been a linguist, riffed at length about the way the word puta's origins are deeper than any one language. "For example," he said, "we have 'booty' and 'pussy,' both of which replicate the p-b sound."

"What about 'shaky pudding'?" I asked.

"Well, the 'pudding,' yes, obviously, originates from the same sound."

Whatever. I ordered another pasta, rigatoni in a pomodoro sauce with cubes of pancetta ($8), during our second visit. Unfortunately, it was inferior to the puttanesca. I'm afraid the restaurant needs to do some real work on its tomato sauce, an acrid brew with loud tin can-like notes and echoes of Chef Boyardee.

The sauce also shows up in baked Ricotta Vesuvio, a starter dip of melting ricotta served with focaccia ($5). If you like this sort of thing, you'll love it. But I recommend the arugula salad ($4), dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and scattered with parmigiano reggiano. It's fresh and lively. The mussels ($7) are tasty enough in their white wine broth, although the garlic could be reduced by half for my taste. If Italians actually used as much garlic as Americans do when trying to duplicate their cuisine, you'd be able to smell Italy from Germany.

The restaurant is all windows, mirrors and steel with a completely open kitchen. You sit at Formica-topped tables in wooden chairs that remind me of the ones my schoolteachers always sat in. Service is attentive and congenial. Osteria has been open about a month and is probably still ironing out irregularities. For the money, it's already a good show and I'm optimistic about its future.

Here and there

Bien Thuy still cannot be beat for Vietnamese in our city. A recent take-out order of shredded papaya salad topped with boiled shrimp was a fiery complement to chicken in a complex lemongrass sauce. ... I love Carroll Street Cafe and probably eat there once a week. But I sure would like to see some specials that cost under $17. Yeah, I can eat the inexpensive pastas or sandwiches, but there ought to be something between them and a $20 steak. ... Daddy D'z has reopened after a three-week closing caused by a kitchen fire. The kitchen's been rebuilt. Wouldn't this be a good time to start serving my favorite ribs and barbecued chicken on something besides paper plates? And, really, plastic forks and knives are not right.

I returned to Whole Foods recently and managed to spend $10 at the by-the-pound hot bar. My chicken breast was desiccated, though collards and grilled veggies were just fine. My companion ordered a hunk of cold salmon with some asparagus. Both were grim and expensive.

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

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