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Six feet under the Tuscan soleil

Revisits to three neighborhood survivors

grazing

It's been one of those weeks.

I've eaten all over the place but nowhere new. We are lucky in Atlanta that it's possible to have a good restaurant meal in any part of the city. But we sure aren't seeing many new restaurants opening intown these days. Indeed, everywhere I go, restaurateurs complain that business is down. Way down, in many cases.

Many are responding to the still-crippled economy by offering specials (like Prime's incredible early-bird prices), reinventing themselves (like Ami, which closed last week to reopen soon as Toast) or, dreadfully, throwing in the towel altogether. We've seen a spate of closings recently, from the ambitious Cavu and funky Blue Trout to the irreplaceable Salumeria Taggiasca deli in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Tiburon Grille is closing at the end of the month.

Even Frutti Valle, the excellent Colombian restaurant on Buford Highway, has closed! But the owner, according to Eddie Hernandez of Sundown Cafe, offers some of the closed restaurant's dishes at the taqueria next to your fave palazzo di nude cha-cha-cha, the Pink Pony.

My aimless dining last week took me to one of my old faves: Soleil (3081 Maple Dr., 404-467-1790). I've been eating owner Jacques Hourtal's Mediterranean cuisine for about 10 years, ever since he first began cooking at nearby Anis, where he was a founding partner. He set out on his own at Soleil in 1996. My favorite Hourtal dish is his brandade, which is not on the menu but shows up on rare occasions as a special.

I lunched there recently with my friend Brad Lapin, who inevitably orders the heart-healthy vegetarian melt sandwich. Brad calls it the best such sandwich his heart-healthy diet compels him to eat. It's made with eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, lettuce, onion, Swiss cheese and mayo. It sounds like a mess, but it's well constructed.

My usual fave here is the daily risotto, and my fave of those is the one topped with a few lamb chops. During our lunch last week, though, I ordered a special salad — a fabulous one of mixed lettuces topped with smoked salmon wrapped around poached eggs. Overkill of velvety textures? Not at all. My palate is smooth as silk.

Jacques, by the way, is opening a sister restaurant in Annapolis, Md., where his daughter lives, and he has taken on two partners at his Buckhead location. The only planned change right now is adding occasional live jazz. You will not find a more affordable menu of Provencal cuisine in our city.

La Tavola (992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430) is Virginia-Highland's mid-price trattoria owned by the same folks who operate Sala, Food Studio and South City Kitchen. On a spring evening, you'll want to join the multitude thronged on the back patio shared with adjoining restaurants.

The service here always seems a bit quirky to me. I don't mean that in a bad way, but it's obvious the owners do not encourage waitrons to inhibit their individual style. At the door, we were met by a young man who said he was not allowed to make a move without the official greeter's approval or she would bite off his ... well, you get the picture. Our regular server was a maddeningly mellow dude. When I snapped that, all right, already, we want to place our order, he looked at me like I'd snatched the bong out of his mouth.

Our meal was not up to par for some reason. We enjoyed the antipasto plate. It was a big white square decorated with soppressata, prosciutto, caper berries, a halved head of roasted garlic, olives, artichokes, parmiagiano and roasted red peppers. No problem with that, although there needed to be more of the two meats.

My entree, however, was a big problem. Risotto cooked with pancetta and Parmesan cheese, topped with seared scallops, sounds delicious. But the first bite was so salty I reached for my ChapStick. Then I encountered scallops that were grotesquely undercooked, tasting as if they'd been dropped in boiling water for five seconds. Turn up the heat and brown them a bit.

Wayne ordered the day's special lasagna made with sausage, arugula and spinach. It was a lot better than my own choice, but, honestly, nothing to leave Grant Park and Grant Central for.

And speaking of Grant Park, we dined at Six Feet Under (415 Memorial Drive, 404-523-6664) for the first time since its opening almost two years ago. My return was occasioned by my 78-year-old friend Dick whining that you can't find good fried catfish in our city anymore. I referred him to several good Asian restaurants, but he acted as if I'd suggested he betray the Confederacy. So I sent him to Six Feet Under, which he enjoyed.

This clever combination of a pub and a fish shack takes its name from its view of historic Oakland Cemetery directly across the street. You can dine on an upstairs patio that gives you a sweeping view of the necropolis.

You don't have to eat fried food, but that's what I was craving when Wayne and I visited. Calamari fried in the restaurant's light and ubiquitous cornmeal coating was tender but crunchy. The effect of accompanying deep-fried jalapeno slices was cranked up by a horseradish dipping sauce. I was less fond of Wayne's gumbo. I detected no file in the rather watery soup, which was, however, loaded with shrimp, oysters and sausage.

I had to have the basket of fried oysters, shrimp and cod served over homemade potato chips that I liked a lot more than Buckhead Diner's. The seafood was sweet and juicy, though I didn't much like the oniony tartar sauce. Wayne's blackened catfish totally pleased him. I would be happy never to eat another piece of blackened fish, but I dug the whole fried okra on the side.

Overall, Six Feet Under remains an entertaining spot. Attention to the finer points would make it even better.

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



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