Slice of urban life

Castleberry Hill's slick new pizza parlor, Babs in Midtown

"I feel so suddenly urban and hip,"

I told Wayne as we slid into our seats at Slice (259 Peters St., 404-588-1820), the new pizza parlor in the rapidly gentrifying Castleberry Hill section of downtown Atlanta.

Across the street is the U-Haul rental center, where I made routine appearances in my 20s and 30s, fleeing draconian landlords (they wanted the rent). A few doors down is a building with mega-cool artist Todd Murphy's name on the window. His studio? I have no idea. Further down is the Peters Street Market. I'm telling you. It's just like Nueva York!

Slice is a looker, for real. Unpainted but polished pine banquettes line half the rectangular restaurant. The bar, where many patrons eat as well as drink, is backed by two big flat-screen televisions perched on the wall like a pair of plasma eyes monitoring your every bite. The kitchen is open. There's a sofa where a pheromone-drenched couple were curled up with pizza and beer. Honestly, Slice is a perfect blend of coziness and cool design.

The food is average but cheap. "Kim's Mystical Mushrooms" — no, they are not peyote buttons — are almost comically retro. You get big white caps filled with pepperoni, tomato sauce, crumbled Ritz crackers and a mysterious cheese. Scarf 'em down and look around to make sure nobody saw you eat all eight of them in 45 seconds.

An overpriced antipasto salad recalls the same dish at the old Rocky's on Peachtree but without the good balsamic dressing. Nevertheless, it's loaded with salami, cappicola and ham, as well as the usual olives and tomatoes.

We couldn't resist ordering the bizarre pizza made with pureed apricots, smoked turkey, mozzarella and cream cheese. I couldn't help it — I liked it. I even liked it the next morning for breakfast, rolled up like filled pastry warmed 10 seconds in the microwave. The pizza is the color of honey and its big globs of cream cheese melt in the mouth. I promise: I do not smoke marijuana!

Lasagna was the best dish I sampled. You can choose your filling — sausage for me — to place between fat, tender noodles with a decent marinara and mozzarella. It's obviously assembled as ordered, so it's far fresher than the average pizzeria's.

Desserts? We skipped them. A tiramisu and some tired cheesecake are available. Isn't it time cheesecake joined the kiwi and the Belgian waffle on the forgotten-foods shelf?

?Best $8 lunch going
"That was the best $8 lunch I've ever had," I told the chef at Babs (814 Juniper St., 404-541-0888) as I left last week.

I had no such expectation when I visited this new subterranean brick-lined cafe where Orange and Scarlett's used to be located. Odd how this location seems to curse its tenants with bizarre names, isn't it? For my editor Bill Addison, former lounge-club singer, the new name evokes Barbra Streisand, the liberal she-devil of Hollywood.

Babs opens early for breakfast every day and remains open until 11 p.m. except Sunday, when it closes at 2 p.m. The emphasis is vaguely on healthy, light food, and the menu refers to low-carb specials. It was one of those — a mere $6.95 — that I tried last week: salmon, grilled until slightly charred, and served with a dollop of Hollandaise over sauteed young asparagus and spinach, with some grilled tomatoes. I was astonished.

The young chef told me he'd worked in many restaurants in Los Angeles and New York. "I learned to make good food that looks good and to do it in a hurry," he said. "That's good for the kitchen, but it's not so good as a lifestyle, so here I am in Atlanta."

Babs has a patio as well as indoor seating. Go and let me know if the quality holds up.

?Here and there
It's warming up and that means you'll be running your hot long tongue all over mounds of soft ice cream soon, right? A newcomer you have to try is Hank's Ice Cream (753 Cherokee Ave., 404-622-0007), across from Zoo Atlanta in Grant Park.

Hank's comes to Atlanta from Houston, where it is located near the Astrodome and has a fanatical following. A relative of the Houston owner has opened the shop here. The stuff is fantastic. I sampled banana pudding with crunchy vanilla wafers and an amazing caramel pecan. I call it amazing because it was loaded with pecan halves that tasted freshly roasted. The butter pecan, as I recall, was everyone's favorite in Houston when I lived there and it featured the same deliciously roasted nuts.

There are a bunch of other flavors, all of which I plan to sample and then waddle back to my house about six blocks away.

Da-Lat, located in the clubhouse of an abandoned mini-golf course, remains one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants. Sorry, I do not have the address. It's not posted and nobody speaks English to give it to me. It's located a few doors down from Stringer's, 3384 Shallowford Road, between Chamblee-Tucker Road and Buford Highway. You can call 770-451-3132, but you better speak Vietnamese.

Of course, the outre location attracts me even though there is no access to walk amid the mini-golf monuments. But mainly I like the clay-pot dishes here, especially the ribs slow-cooked in a salty, spicy fish sauce. Another favorite is banh xeo, the rice-flour crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. Tear off a piece, wrap it in lettuce with herbs and dip it in fish sauce.

Skip the salt-and-pepper squid, a poor version of the Chinese classic. A soup — loaded with tofu, shrimp and Chinese broccoli — exceeds anything I've had in most pho shops in town. The broth is complex and bracing.

One warning: If you are allergic to cigarette smoke, carry an oxygen tank. We shared the restaurant on a late Sunday afternoon with 10 drunk young men who high-fived one another with cigarettes in their hands about 750 times.

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

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