Dressed to bill

Restaurant Eugene a swank new destination for Buckhead's well-heeled set

When I was 20, I rented a small house in Peachtree Hills for $80 a month. When my German landlady died, her attorney offered me the house for $10,000. I thought $10,000 was too much and passed. Lo, these many years later, I drive by the house and wonder at the wealth I see.

I got a double-shot of poor-me last week when I dined in my old neighborhood's new Restaurant Eugene (2277 Peachtree Road, 404-355-0321), which is on the ground floor of a swank but characterless condo building called "The Aramore." Here is my first warning: Dress like you are going to a wedding at Christ the King. When I walked into the place, I immediately recalled the original Bacchanalia in an informal cottage on Piedmont Avenue. When it opened, the owners expected people to show up casually dressed and were stunned to see their foyer turned into a fashion runway by Buckhead's moneyed set. They're all here at Eugene now.

The host at Eugene did not bat an eye at our slovenly appearance but did tell us that we'd have to eat in the lounge instead of the 80-seat dining room, since we did not have a reservation. I was annoyed because I'd twice called and was told a reservation was unnecessary. "Well, it's true," the host said. "You don't need a reservation ... unless you want to eat in the dining room."

I was suspicious but we dutifully went to the lounge area with its wrap-around leather banquette. There, I could pop up now and then and turn my head to behold the silver-haired landed gentry eating off genuine white tablecloths.

Honestly, the place is quite lovely. The design is by Seiber Design, the same folks who gave us the erotic Spice. There's lots of gray, a gorgeous carpet that reminds me of a Zen sand garden, big windows, dramatic lighting. It deserves a well-dressed clientele.

The owner and chef of the new restaurant is Linton Hopkins, who moved here from Washington, D.C., with his wife Gina, who is director of operations and — judging from her role during our visit — also the restaurant's chief air kisser. I have no idea how newcomers to Atlanta could so quickly develop a loyal following, but so it seems.

The food is mainly wonderful, but please do carry lots of cash in your good clothes. It's quite unusual to see a restaurant opening these days with entrees in the $25-plus range and appetizers costing about half that and more. Mainly, the food merits the cost.

Wayne started with a "mosaic of tartare" — sashimi grades of four different fish arranged into a square atop créme fraiche with salmon roe scattered about the plate, served with a feather-light sesame wafer. I ordered pan-seared foie gras — actually, duck foie gras — served with a ribbon of pastry topped with tiny slices of rhubarb. I have to say, the strawberry jelly on the plate wasn't my idea of a good accompaniment with foie gras, but, yeah, I know that where rhubarb shows itself, strawberries are not far behind.

Our meal took a surprising turn at this point. I told Bryan, Waitron of the Week and the chattiest server I've encountered in a long time, that I could not decide between a scallop dish and lamb for my entree. He suggested I order the herb-crusted rack of lamb and he would try to convince the chef to give me a taste of the scallops.

"I always say there are two kinds of people who come to a restaurant," he said. "You have those who just want to eat and those who want to dine. I can see that the two of you like to dine."

Wayne and I looked at one another. Gah!

We were happily surprised when our "taste" arrived as a very generous second course of glossy, seared St. George's Bank scallops circled about a fricassee of plump English peas and morels with fluffy gnocchi.

"Well this is certainly more than generous compensation for seating us at the kids' table," I said.

Later, however, I reviewed the bill and discovered that we had in fact been charged $27 — the price of the entree — for the extra dish. It's a good thing we like to dine.

I actually wasn't too fond of the rack of lamb, the menu's most expensive dish at $34. Oh, it was cooked to medium-rare perfection and I loved the Nameko mushrooms and fava beans on the plate. But the lamb's "herb crust" was too thick for my taste, reminding me of stuffing robbed from a turkey. Chef Hopkins named his restaurant after his food-loving grandfather Eugene, who grew up on a farm outside Memphis. A touch like the lamb's herb crust can't be an accidental allusion to his Southern roots. Ditto for the rhubarb and strawberries.

The Southern touch asserted itself too in Wayne's sauteed wild striped bass, served with country ham, littleneck clams and sherried herb nage. I recommend it over the lamb.

Wayne ordered the profiteroles, his favorite dessert on the planet, but they were disappointing. He likes the huge puffy ones that taste like street food. These were a bit too serious and doughy, though their chocolate-orange blossom and butter pecan ice cream were delish. A Weiss chocolate tart was lightly sprinkled with salt and married to a thin layer of caramel. But my favorite, brought to the table although we'd not ordered it, was a hazelnut tart with coffee ice cream and cognac-sauteed dried plums. Weirdly, the tart and both our drinks were complimentary, even though we were charged for the scallops. Despite the confusion over the check, I definitely recommend Eugene as a special-occasion destination.

Charitable eating

This Thursday is Dining Out for Life, the 12th annual fundraiser for Project Open Hand. Over 150 restaurants contribute 20 percent of their take to the organization which provides free meals to men, women and children with AIDS.

To find out if a restaurant is participating, call 404-419-3309 or log onto www.projectopenhand.org.

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

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