In search of the silver lining

Visits to Enat and The Clubhouse

Even while I was a teenager, my mother used to complain that I had a split personality. On the one hand, she said, I had the tastes of someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth. On the other hand, according to her, I had the tastes of someone who found silver corrosive in the mouth.

It's never changed. Although I feel completely comfortable in the world of silver spoons — thanks to Mama — I typically prefer the unshiny world. What I really dislike, though, is tin passing itself off as silver.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that's what Lenox Square's The Clubhouse (3393 Peachtree Road, 404-442-8891) does, but it's close. And as evidence of the way the outre defeats my taste for even the vaguely silver, I can tell you that I had a far better meal last week at Enat Ethiopia Cafe and Mart (1999 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-685-9291) than at The Clubhouse.

Enat is in a rather seedy little building easy to miss on Cheshire Bridge. Like so many Ethiopian spots around town, it is as much cultural center and hangout as restaurant. The charming owner, a beautiful woman, insisted I visit the restaurant's "traditional room" in the back of the restaurant. There, groups may eat communally from big plates of food set in colorful baskets big enough to float a full-grown Moses down the Nile.

Throughout, the restaurant is hung with native fabric and art — obviously done on a shoestring and all the more endearing for it. When I dined there, I was literally alone in the restaurant. I ate in the front dining room, a more conventional set-up than the traditional room, and I found the food better than most Ethiopian.

My mother would be proud that Ethiopian food is one of the few cuisines that tends to bend my silver spoon more than I like. I have a difficult time with the injera, the spongy sourdough, pancakelike bread you use to wrap each mouthful of food. It expands in the stomach and makes me feel full well before I eat as much of the savory stews as I want. Generally, too, I don't like eating with my hands. Theoretically, I can see how it could be sensuous, but like so much of life, the concept seems better than the experience to me.

But my fussiness in this respect is not the fault of Enat. Maybe I liked the food more than usual because the owner inquired about how hot I wanted my entree, went to the kitchen and cooked it herself, served it to me and worried aloud if I liked it. But my lega tibs — cubes of beef sauteed in purified butter and cooked with onions, green peppers, rosemary and tomatoes — was, perhaps because it was so piquant, the best version I've ever had.

On the side were garlicky, ginger-spiked collards and a surprisingly good iceberg-based salad made with an unusual dressing. Vegetarians should be very comfortable here. I've sampled each of the veggie dishes and liked them all, but the standout is misser wott, lentils cooked with a sauce of Ethiopian red peppers, garlic and ginger. Yellow split peas are milder but a nice contrast on the combo plate with the collards.

The menu at Enat is quite abbreviated compared to some other Ethiopian restaurants in town, but off-the-menu dishes, like some made with lamb, are also available at times. Hours appear to be irregular, so you may want to call ahead before you go for lunch or dinner. And be sure to clean your plate! As I said, the injera bloats me too rapidly to do such a thing and Enat's owner was devastated when I didn't eat every morsel.

"You did not like it!" she cried.

"I loved it. I'm full," I replied.

"In Ethiopia, you are supposed to eat everything," she explained, "or we get our feelings hurt."

Who knew Ethiopian cooks were like Jewish mothers?

Tee up and chow down

I ate even less of my meal at The Clubhouse. And it cost about three times that of a meal at Enat. I don't understand environments like this. The restaurant is part of a chain owned by actors Kevin Costner and Robert Wagner and golfers Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples.

It's a dark, woody, country-club ambiance. I don't do well at country clubs, even though they were my father's idea of paradise. As a high school student, I was an escort at a debutante ball at the Piedmont Driving Club and managed to spill an entire plate of food on my date's dress. In my 20s, at the much less swank Atlanta Country Club, I managed to spill a plate of food on myself. See! I do belong at a place like Enat where you eat with your hands.

I didn't spill any food on myself at The Clubhouse ... but I didn't swallow much of it either. Calamari is batter-fried just right — tender, slightly chewy — but is served over a cloying ginger-basil sauce sweet enough to make a decent ice-cream topping. I was in the mood for comfort and ordered the chicken potpie entree. It was big enough to house four and 20 blackbirds. Topped with a completely soggy "crust" of mashed potatoes, its interior held decently roasted chicken breast and al dente veggies in a mild chicken-stock sauce.

My totally perky server Abbie, herewith declared Waitron of the Week, spirited the enormous creation away after I ate a small crater out of it. "I have actually seen people eat this whole thing," she commented. I took the rest home. It barely fit in my microwave.

If you feel absolutely compelled to soak up clubby atmosphere, I suggest you stick with the decent burgers and steaks. But, honestly, it's a short escalator ride upstairs to Prime where you will find much better food at better prices. And you don't have to feel tempted to wear red pants with a white belt there — or whatever people are wearing on golf courses these days.

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

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