What becomes a legend least?

Wolfgang Puck brings his corporate pizza concept pizza to Atlanta

The thing I hate about Los Angeles is the same thing I love about it: its preoccupation with image and beauty. On the plus side you have the film and art communities there working creatively, often brilliantly, with images. On the down side, you have an equally huge community of superficial people only concerned about their self-image. The horror is how easily people can, especially with commercial success, move from the first category to the second.

A story in this regard: My friend Michael is an agent in L.A. I can't mention her by name, but his most famous client is a crone with cotton-candy hair, a little-girl voice and a brain roughly the size of a dinosaur's. One day, Michael and I escorted her to lunch at Spago Beverly Hills, Wolfgang Puck's flagship restaurant. People kept coming to the table to pay the crone homage. Once an attractive ingenue, she had turned into a geriatric self-parody of herself, accepting the homage with phony giggling that more resembled late Alzheimer's than the shyness of the young woman she still pretended to be. Nonetheless, we ate well.

During my next visit, Michael and I grabbed a quick lunch in West Hollywood at Wolfgang Puck Express, a fast-food venue featuring the culinary giant's gourmet pizzas made famous at the original Spago in West Hollywood. Having eaten at Spago, Granita and Chinois, and knowing he was replicating his fine dining restaurants in places like Las Vegas, I was already feeling that the Austrian-born Puck was turning into an industry. This new venue's menu of ill-prepared culinary cliches confirmed it. Like the cotton-candy-headed actress, the "chef to the stars" had become a self-parody. And this was no footnote in recent culinary history. Puck really did revive California cooking 20 years ago with his French technique. He was and is a big, big star, baby.

Atlantans now have the opportunity to witness this grim spectacle of self-parody themselves at the new Wolfgang Puck Express in the Brookwood Place complex in south Buckhead (1745 Peachtree St., 404-815-1500). You order here at a counter above which a video of Puck plays continually. There is, surprisingly, no robot of him gliding about the dining room bleeping "Live, Love, Eat," the restaurant's slogan that is painted on a wall. It just so happens to also be the title of Puck's new cookbook. Live, Love, Eat and Buy, Buy, Buy.

I've had three meals here. None of the food has been very good, but service, which was dreadful to begin with, has improved. After you order, you are given one of those hockey pucks that light up and vibrate when your food is ready. Supposedly, a server finds you and delivers your food, but I have twice had to go hunt the food myself. A manic expediter shouts that food is ready but it can languish until tepid. I've seriously never seen such confusion trying to get food to tables but the servers were managing much better during my last visit.

Speaking of tables, you'll want to sit at the bar. The dining room itself is gloomy despite its clever Jetson decor. The bar is backed by an exhibition kitchen, featuring the oven which Puck describes on the menu: "Its intense heat works together with our special doughs, sauces and toppings to produce pizzas with light, crispy, smoky-tasting crusts ..."

Um, no. I've sampled three and not a one comes close to what you'll get at Fritti, Baraonda, Savage, Cameli's, Everybody's, Fellini's or Osteria 832. Crusts are far from thin and crispy. They are doughy. The famous one made with smoked salmon needs a crispy crust and instead is soggy with its dill cream sauce. The four-cheese pizza is better though the pesto in the pie I sampled was light and the fresh basil nonexistent. The barbecue chicken pizza — actually what I first ate in West Hollywood — is too sweet.

Pastas, like penne with prosciutto and peas, tend to be sticky and crassly flavored. The absolute star of things to avoid is the rosemary rotisserie chicken. The menu calls it "juicy and crispy-skinned." If so, sawdust wrapped in crepe paper is juicy and crispy-skinned. Wolfgang needs to visit Eats on Ponce for far juicer chicken at almost half the price.

What else: Fries that are room-temperature, a Caesar salad that is so over-dressed it deserves the description the chicken doesn't. A cold noodle and chicken salad in a peanut dressing so cloying that George Washington Carver is spinning in his grave. Key lime pie decorously served on a big white plate with spots of fruity sauce, even though it recalls the grand kitchens of Chef Sara Lee.

What was passable? The butternut squash soup, a signature dish, was earthy with sharp notes from red bell peppers and chives. The tortilla soup, made with fire-roasted tomatoes, is pretty good too but a bit thick. My Diet Coke rocked.

Dare I say it? Go to Popeye's!

Here and there.

Speaking of well-roasted chicken, I'm reminded of Brasserie Le Coze at Lenox Square, which without doubt serves my favorite in the city. My friend Brad Lapin, who lives in Rome and is back in Atlanta slumming for a few months, lunched with me there recently. I skipped the chicken for once and ordered a really marvelous skirt steak with fries.

I confess I find the lunch prices at Le Coze a bit high. If you want to save some bucks, Le Coze is running a great weekday special, 5:30-7 p.m. You get three courses for $15. It's best to be seated by 6:30 p.m. Le Coze has a new chef, by the way. He's Joshua Perkins, who has been sous chef for the last year.

Brad and I also lunched recently at Twist, across the street at Phipps. My expatriate friend was heavily impressed and has returned several times for the restaurant's remarkable small plates. My favorite remains the sashimi tuna "pizza." Shame on you if you eat there and don't order it.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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