Au lait!

New Midtown eatery introduces European cafe culture to Atlanta

Marco Betti is quite the risk-taker. He expanded our city's understanding of northern Italian cuisine when he opened Antica Posta four years ago in Buckhead. Antica Posta is sister to Betti's restaurant by the same name in Tuscany. His cuisine's authenticity has never been questioned, but authenticity doesn't always fly in Atlanta. He made it fly. We eat simply prepared zolfini beans there as an appetizer and swoon.

Now, Betti is attempting something especially daring. Throughout Europe, people hang out in cafes at all hours of the day. You can eat breakfast and a late-night dinner in the same cafe. You can drink coffee and juice or liquor. You can stand at the bar if you're in a hurry, or you can grab a table if you want to kill some time. Cafe life is one of the most endearing things about Europe. We have our own bar culture but it's not the same since, unless you're a drunk, we don't hang out at bars mornings and afternoons.

Betti's new project, Caffe Midtown (1052 Peachtree St., 404-873-3000) attempts to bring this concept to Atlanta. I wish him well. The location, at Peachtree's intersection with 11th Street, is not exactly accessible to a lot of parking, so it's hard to imagine anyone but workers in the area popping in for coffee and pastry. In fact, I tried once and couldn't find a parking space.

However, I did dine there on a recent Sunday evening and had an absolutely killer meal of three courses and espresso for less than $30. Chef Marzio Africh, who has worked in Betti's Tuscany and Atlanta restaurants, is cooking up a storm. I was sorry to see the restaurant empty but, if word gets around, it certainly won't be for long.

You'll start your meal with some crusty foccacia cut into small pieces and served with an addictive black olive tapenade. I ordered a starter of carpaccio, thin enough to dissolve in the mouth, served over baby arugula with celery and olive oil. Shaved parmesan garnished the beef. The celery added a novel note to the peppery arugula which, with the sharp cheese, made the carpaccio all the more buttery and sweet. I could hear music in my mouth.

Wayne chose a big bowl of farro soup. Farro is spelt, a hard grain that was a staple among Italy's poor for centuries but has found its way into more and more upscale restaurants in recent years. Beans and peas were also in the large bowl.

For my entree, I chose one of the pastas — corkscrew-shaped gemelli in a sauce made with reduced cream, tossed with fresh green peas and prosciutto. Flawless. Wayne ordered the day's fish — salmon seared medium rare and served with salad greens and cubes of roasted potatoes. He dipped the fish in a Livornese sauce that combined green olives, capers and anchovies with olive oil.

There are various cakes and pastries on display in glass cases along the restaurant's 30-foot bar, but none are made on the premises. We instead ordered panna cotta and tiramisu, followed by double macchiatos made with Illy espresso, which is weirdly free of bitterness.

What else? The restaurant is a convivial space with a gold-green floor and cream-colored walls, mahogany tables and cobalt wine glasses. The staff is friendly and educated. You gotta go.

All about money

Times are not good for the restaurant business. Recent closings include Cavu, across from Spice on Juniper. The restaurant began life with an almost surreally innovative menu, reinvented itself as a seafood place and now has gone kaput. Vultures long circled the restaurant — it's primo real estate — and it will be interesting to see who occupies it next.

Other closings include Ambrosia and the New Indigo Coastal Grill, both also in prime locations, Asher in Roswell, the unusual Cafe Jerusalem in Toco Hills and the tasty Indian vegetarian spot, Woodland Restaurant in Decatur. I'm happy to say that Collard Green Cafe, the great meat-and-three place in Toco Hills, has not closed but re-located to 2566 Shallowford Road.

The bad economy does mean reduced prices and specials at some restaurants in town. I wrote about Joel's $29 prix fixe menu a few weeks ago. One of the most popular deals in town right now — one that causes some of my friends to salivate uncontrollably when they talk about it — is Prime's daily "early-bird" special. Seven nights a week, 5-6:30 p.m., the Lenox Square mall steak house sells its filets, New York strips and rib-eyes for $10. These are the regular menu steaks that sell after 6:30 p.m. for twice or triple the special price. You must be seated and have your order in by 6:30 p.m., so arrive early. Take MARTA and you won't have to contend with the rush-hour traffic.

Of course, if you're feeling flush, why not try out this month's special menu at Nikolai's Roof, atop the downtown Hilton? The restaurant is featuring Georgia truffles in all dishes on all three of its prix fixe menus ($49, $63 or $84). Maybe you didn't know but truffles were discovered in southwest Georgia in pecan orchards nearly 13 years ago. The pecan truffles featured at Nikolai's Roof are from Magnolia Plantation in Leary. The 12,000-acre plantation has the largest production in Georgia. You go and let me know how you found the sauteed foie gras and caramelized peaches on Ashland Farm salad in roasted pecan vinaigrette, garnished with fresh Georgia truffles.

Here and there

Daddy D'z, which serves the best barbecue in town despite the use of Styrofoam plates and plastic forks, is buying cakes from a private baker. The "humming bird cake" is outrageously good. ... I get rave reviews from readers about downtown's Loaf and Kettle, a sandwich-and-soup spot in the Healy Building, open weekdays for lunch only. I'll be visiting soon. ...

Atkins Park has a new chef, formerly with Dick and Harry's. ... Blue Dakota, a burrito joint, has opened on Cherokee Avenue in Grant Park. ... Nam, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in Midtown, is open. I'll be reviewing it next week.

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

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