City Slicker

Ray's in the City brings fresh seafood downtown

"It's just like San Francisco," Wayne said, as we trudged up a hill to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, after parking three blocks away.

A panhandler shook a super-size McDonald's cup full of change as we walked by. "Hey, fellas, how's about some change!"

"You're right," I told Wayne. "It's exactly like San Francisco."

Actually, downtown Atlanta, especially the Fairlie-Poplar district, is looking better than ever, although finding a parking space that doesn't cost as much as a dinner entree isn't easy if there's any kind of event happening. The Peachtree Center area, where we were headed, still retains John Portman's hideous architecture, but, here and there, flourishes have been added to humanize it.

We thought about taking a nostalgia trip and dining at Sundial, the revolving restaurant atop the Westin Peachtree Plaza, which is without doubt the ugliest hotel I have seen since we were marooned in a huge honeycomb in the middle of nowhere in Turkey five years ago. We checked out Sundial's menu at the concierge's stand. Its prices resemble a report of payoffs to lottery winners. "We'll be back for brunch," I said.

We landed at Ray's in the City (240 Peachtree St., 404-524-9224), which opened recently in a location that has been home to restaurants like Rio Bravo and Siesta Grill in recent years. It's owned by the same people who have, for the last 20 years, operated the popular Ray's on the River in Marietta on the banks of the Chattahoochee.

Of course, the clientele here is mainly convention and business people, but to the restaurant's credit, prices are not larcenous. And service is spectacular. In fact, I have seldom encountered a server as good as Julie, Waitron of the Week. I am guessing her real job is poetry, or the restaurant colorfully scripts the staff's language. Her description of each fish was more complex and sensual than you get from wine tasters. The slightly flaky texture, the hint of oil, the sweet notes and the tendency of the skin to caramelize. ...

We ate well. A $12 sampler from the raw bar included three varieties of oysters and a Top Neck clam. The Steamboat oyster was the best by far, splashed just slightly with vinegar. Please don't dunk these subtle beauties in ketchup! The restaurant, which is quite sprawling, also has a sushi bar. We sampled a spider roll, made with fried soft-shell crab: average.

Wayne and I fought over who got to order the "day's recommendation," wahoo from Dulac, La. Julie's description convinced us both that our lives would make considerable turnarounds if we would just try it. I relented and ordered the restaurant's best seller, horseradish-crusted grouper.

Of course, the restaurant was out of the life-changing wahoo and Wayne contented himself with halibut from Alaska. Unless you order from the fancy entrees, as I did, all fish here is simply grilled with olive oil and lemon. The halibut was the better choice of the two entrees we sampled, although I did not care for its accompaniment of commercial-tasting saffron rice.

My grouper was a mixed success. The fish itself was just fine, nice and meaty with the usual al dente texture, but I didn't care for the horseradish crust, which was basically tasteless. "Are my taste buds dead or does this have utterly no zing?" I asked Wayne. He confirmed its tastelessness. Nonetheless, plenty of flavor could be picked up in the whipped potatoes encircled by an electrically yellow-orange sauce that was in turn encircled by a thick balsamic vinegar. The plate looked rather like a fried egg whose yolk had just been pierced.

For dessert, we shared Key lime pie, which also had psychedelic plating. This time, the plate was decorated with a kaleidoscopic circle of mango and raspberry coulis. The pie was fine, but, just like the grouper's crust, it lacked zing. Wayne squeezed lime on it.

Here and there

A reader wrote to ask where I eat when I'm in the mood for soul food. The answer is not the much beloved and overestimated Thelma's downtown. No. I still prefer funky Southfork on Ponce de Leon Avenue, located in the old Krystal whose exterior has been redecorated in colors you don't normally see outside a bottle of pills.

The restaurant serves steam-tray food and you will probably want to carry it out, but the fried chicken is killer. Actually, my last two meals there have turned up better meat dishes than vegetables. I hope that summer's arrival will convince the ladies of Southfork to do some shelling and shucking. ...

I mentioned the downtown Fairlie-Poplar district above. Another reader, Mark, wrote to recommend the new Blue Cloud Coffee, a coffee shop and lunch cafe across from Ted's Montana Grill. The owners import coffee from their family's plantation in Vietnam. I rushed over for lunch, but found the cafe in the middle of a power outage.

I did, however, get a drink of the home brew — a deliciously earthy taste. Check it out. ...

I regularly receive e-mail from folks who've moved to Atlanta and can't find frozen custard, the butterfat-rich ice cream popular with Yankees and Midwesterners. Bob Holz wrote to announce that his family has just opened Frizbeez Frozen Custard at 2986 Johnson Ferry Road in Marietta. The shop also sells homemade fudge and bulk candy. ...

Silk, which calls itself an Asian steak, sushi and lobster bar, opened last week in the Metropolis building in Midtown (919 Peachtree St.). The new restaurant is owned by Anna and Raymond Hsu, who own downtown's Hsu's Gourmet Chinese and Pacific Rim Bistro.

The interior design of the new, 5,300-square-feet restaurant is by Tony Arly. Look for bamboo floors and silk-draped alcoves for private dining. ...

Some excitement occasioned Silk's opening party last Thursday night, although it was unknown to the 200 folks who attended. PR Princess Karen Wantuck reports that the kitchen's chemical fire extinguishers automatically erupted at 5 p.m. when the grill was turned on. An unlovely foam flooded all the sauces. The staff rushed to Hsu's to make new sauces, heating all the appetizers at the bakery across the street.

Balance, on Piedmont Ave., is closed. The restaurant, owned by the same folks who operate Gilbert's on 10th Street, was an interesting experiment that allowed diners to mix and match cooking styles and sauces, as well as entrees and side dishes. The idea was to concoct a meal compatible with your diet, be it high-fat or all-carb. But people complained about the prices and Chef Edward Cruz's original menu was pared back to only give a choice of side-dishes. The novelty gone, quality seemed to slip and now the restaurant, a good idea modeled after New York's Craft, is history. ...

This is cool. The High Museum is hosting Cinematic Feasts: A Celebration of Food & Film, June 11-26. The High will be showing international films about food, such as Like Water for Chocolate, Babette's Feast and Mostly Martha.

The event is still in planning, but chefs from sponsoring restaurants will conduct "free demonstrations" — tastings? — as part of each film's screening. Discussions are planned to follow some movies. Sundown Cafe and Babette's each will offer special menus during the weeks of the festival.

To reserve a ticket — $5 each — call 404-733-4580. More information is available from 404-733-4570 or the High's website, www.high.org.

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

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