I see Italy, I see France

Revisits to Iris and Sotto Sotto, two neighborhood treasures

The neighborhood restaurant, when it is good, is a refuge from the oversized venues that, like so much else in recent America, have more to do with showmanship and corporate money than the art of cooking. I easily imagine the day when some celebrity chef meets a Martha Stewart-style fate: "Stock in Chef Tommy's empire of gourmet pizzerias hit rock-bottom today when the chef was sentenced to six months in jail for thinning white truffle oil with peanut oil and using knockoff designer lighting in his dining rooms."

It's true that Iris in East Atlanta and Sotto Sotto in Inman Park both have become citywide destinations, but their low-key ambiance, rigorously artistic cooking, fanatical followings and off-the-beaten-path locations make them neighborhood restaurants in most senses. I ate better than I've eaten in months at both last week.

The opening of Iris (1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-221-1300) nearly two years ago in a remodeled gas station was, as much as anything else, a commentary that quirky East Atlanta was indeed in the throes of irreversible gentrification. Overnight, chef/owners Nicolas Bour and Lein Schoe upped the classy quotient in a transitional neighborhood that seemed destined, like Little Five Points, only to host marginal restaurants where coolness was more valued than cuisine.

Iris reminds me of the kinds of places that used to dot New York's SoHo, before it became rarefied. The dining room is comfy and chic. Tables, covered in white linen — many before a long banquette — are placed fairly close together, so there's a bistro feel. It's not the thigh-to-thigh seating of Paris, but intimate enough that during my meal last week I was compelled to become a near face-to-face witness of the worst table manners I have seen in an adult. Please don't lick dressing off lettuce leaves and pick your teeth with a fork!

Wayne and I visited on a Sunday evening, when the restaurant offers the stellar deal of a three-course prix-fixe menu for $29.50. I'll get my one complaint about the meal out of the way: The bread was completely lackluster, bordering on stale, so much so that I finally begged our server to stop refilling my plate with it. Other than that, we ate well.

I started with a juicy ballotine of quail with organic lentils, chanterelles and a vivid compote of pineapple and apples. The plate was sauced with créme de volaille that our server Jennifer said included foie gras, along with the usual chicken stock. Wayne picked the carpaccio of kobe beef, drizzled with black truffle emulsion and garnished with capers, shaved reggiano and spicy arugula.

The second course of the special menu is soup. I picked the crimini mushroom bisque, poured from a small pitcher into a bowl streaked with aged balsamic vinegar and scattered with porcini croutons. Wayne chose the other potage offered — onion soup, heavy with a cheese gratinee and slightly sweet from a shot of sauternes. For quantity, pick the onion soup. For novelty, pick the mushroom bisque. But both powerfully enhance their primary ingredients.

For his entree, Wayne picked a whole crispy flounder, varnished with an apricot-shallot glaze. It was boned tableside by Jennifer, who said she had been waiting all her life to hear how well she performed the task. The fish was delish, but I found the glaze too sweet by a slight degree. Indeed, my own choice — pan-seared Australian lamb loin — was turned a bit too sweet too by its Medjool date confiture, but it's a miniscule complaint. Ratatouille-style vegetables and white asparagus were also on the plate with whipped potatoes.

Service at the restaurant, if you haven't already deduced it, is killer. Ask for Jennifer, Waitron of the Week, the most competent server I've encountered in a long time.

Salt that fish

Sotto Sotto (313 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-6678) is probably my favorite restaurant when I'm not eating for work and it's where I usually take people, like my friend Rick, when I want to liberate them from the stereotype of New York-style Italian cooking.

Riccardo Ullio's northern Italian restaurant has been controversial for superficial reasons. It is no longer overfilled with the spray-on-tan set, the people who went there to exhibit their Armani black while they barked for powdered parmesan cheese and Chianti. One legitimate complaint was the noise level, which Ullio has recently remedied with architectural improvements. It's my personal opinion that the main dining room needs redecorating, but I suspect Ullio is about as interested in doing that as he is in putting Spaghetti-os on the menu.

Rick and I decided to let Ullio design our meal for us. We started with shaved sashimi-grade tuna of amazing mouth-melting quality, washed in a little olive oil and lemon. That was followed by two pasta courses. First was tagliatelle (basically fettuccine in northern Italy) tossed with slightly cooked Heritage tomatoes marinated in olive oil. This is typical of Ullio's style: simplicity, complete devotion to natural flavors, no fussy sauces to disguise anything. If it's not first quality, he doesn't serve it.

The second pasta course — which I heartily recommend you order — was the sauce-soaking spaghetti alla chitarra with a clam and mussel ragu. The textures alone make the dish irresistible, and the flavors of salt and sea are intense.

For our entree, we shared an off-the-menu dish that Ullio plans to add to the regular menu soon: a whole fish baked in salt. I've only had fish prepared this way once before — in southern Spain. Don't worry that the salt will penetrate the fish. It is combined with egg whites and hardens around the fish so that the flesh steams inside the heavy crust, which is removed tableside, where Ullio and staff also debone the fish. The evening of our visit, loup de mer was offered. The snowy white, sweet fish with firm flesh was perfect for this style of cooking.

It is best to get a reservation at both Iris and Sotto Sotto, but you no longer have to rule out the possibility of getting a table without one 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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