To market, to market

So-so seafood, cool coffee and sayonara Soto

My parents sent me off to New York when I was 20 to become a writer. I lived a while at the Roosevelt Hotel, close to Grand Central Station, where I would often go to eat at the counter in the Oyster Bar there. The clientele of commuters appealed to my then romantic imagination, which obviously was spared the indignity of garrets and canned soup by my father's generosity.

I hadn't thought about that time in years. It all came back when Wayne and I dined at the Atlanta Fish Market (265 Pharr Road, 404-262-3165) last week. This restaurant was built by the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group to look like a train station — not Grand Central to be sure, but a 1920s Savannah depot. Here, in the heart of tacky Buckhead, a moneyed crowd that appears on a weekday night mainly to indeed be commuters — tourists and businessmen — waits for tables beneath a three-story copper sculpture of a fish leaping from the ground like an oceanic Godzilla. It is among the city's ugliest sights, making the Stone Mountain laser show sublime art by comparison.

"Mama, buy me a cap!" a kid whined as we passed the counter of restaurant souvenir clothing.

"Please don't," I snapped reflexively, then gasped at my own abruptness. Where was that boho joy I felt in New York amid the harried commuters? Why couldn't I bring that sentiment to Buckhead's nouveau riche? Is it because someone barfed on the urinals while I was in the restroom?

The host must have noticed my 'tude. We were escorted to the restaurant's most remote table — a booth not even in the bar, but next to the far wall beyond the bar.

You have to hand it to the Buckhead Life folks. The Atlanta Fish Market really was breakthrough when it opened more than 10 years ago. Serving fish "no more than 24 hours out of the water," as our server Scott said, the restaurant displays its fresh catches in a glass case that fronts the open kitchen. There are other seafood offerings but the day's catches are the main attraction. You can order them steamed Hong-Kong style in a light soy sauce, charbroiled or sauteed meuniere-style with browned butter, lemon and capers.

For an appetizer, I chose a bowl of mussels steamed in a chipotle broth enriched with Mexico's feta-like queso cotija, served with some big french fries arranged like Lincoln Logs on a separate plate ($12.50). The bowl was an enormous serving and, honestly, the fat, flavorful mussels were among the best I've sampled in a long time. Use the fries to sop the sauce. Wayne started with ruby-red carpaccio of yellow fin tuna carpeting a large white plate and scattered with lemon, chives and white pepper ($9.75).

Our entrees, both among the day's catches, were much less satisfying. Wayne's broiled Block Island swordfish ($21.50) had good flavor, was cooked just right and was, as he put it, "shockingly small." The grim whipped potatoes and mixed vegetables that fill so many plates here are not sufficient compensation.

I ordered three Maryland soft-shell crabs ($18.95). Scott suggested I ordered them meuniere-style instead of fried and I wish I had not. They are rich enough without being drenched in browned butter. I believe Emeril Lagasse prefers to cook soft-shell crabs this way himself. I only hope he does not undercook them like the ones I was served. Sorry, but eating one of the crabs in particular made me feel like a Survivor contestant.

For dessert, we shared bread pudding with rum-soaked raisins and creme anglaise ($5.75). We cleaned the plate, despite so much sugar that some bites were crunchily sand-like.

What to do? Await the return of Richard Blais, the brilliant chef of the creative and defunct Fishbone. He is rumored to be opening his own restaurant, Blais.Black gold

When people ask me where I get my energy, I have a one-word reply: coffee. My favorite is a triple espresso macchiato and I'm happy to sit in the July heat sipping one.

Generally, I dislike iced coffee drinks. I especially loathe those blended "frappuccino" drinks that Starbucks has made popular. Basically Slurpees made with blended ice, coffee and chocolate or caramel, they taste like pureed ice-cream cake and have enough calories to make a Big Mac look slimming.

The best coffee in town in the opinion of most purists is still at the Aurora shops (including the original at 992 N. Highland Ave., 404-607-1300) which, sadly, has made some concession to the market by offering frappuccino-style drinks itself. Honestly, I don't even like iced-lattes. Pouring a latte over ice instantly ruins espresso and steamed milk.

However, I do give Aurora big credit for its regular iced coffee ($1.80), which is good enough that even I like it now and then. The shop sells as much of it as the hot brew during the summer. What makes it so good? "Cold-brewing," says barrista Jim Earley. "We grind 5 pounds of our house coffee very coarse and let it steep in two gallons of water overnight. It produces a concentrate that we then dilute with some water."

The difference is huge. Most coffee shops pour their regularly brewed coffee, hot or room-temperature, over ice, producing an obnoxiously watery drink. Aurora's cold-brew is so strong that even a bit of dilution by the ice doesn't cut the slightly smoky, acid-free taste. Don't ruin it with sugar or milk. It is best straight-up.

Panic and sad news

Several readers have called in a panic because they found Soto, the city's best sushi bar, closed. It seems that Chef Soto has closed only temporarily and will reopen in September with a new decor and concept. Meanwhile, intown folks can head to MF Sushi Bar ...

Ann Claeson, who moved here from St. Louis, where she doted on the frozen custard at Ted Drewes, writes to complain about being unable to find the stuff in Atlanta. It has been my own perennial complaint. If anyone has spotted an authentic frozen custard shop in town, please let me know.

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

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