Silver Swan

Murphy's turns 25, plus Vietnamese discovery Com

In November, Murphy's (997 Virginia Ave., 404-872-0904) marked its 25th anniversary. There's a laminated copy of a review I wrote 10 years ago in the restaurant. I'm loath to repeat myself, but I am still as surprised now as I was then by the success of this restaurant that began its life in a funky basement spot with a small patio a couple of blocks away.

In its original incarnation, Murphy's - where several of my friends worked at the time - was an immediate hit with the new gentrifiers who were rapidly overtaking Virginia-Highland. It was the kind of place people in their 20s and 30s, not yet burdened by children, met for light brunch or a lunch of homemade soup, a designer sandwich and a brownie. It had an adolescent quality and lots of us whined when owner Tom Murphy decided it was time for his restaurant to grow up and get serious in a new location. Some of us predicted he'd never carry it off in the comparatively huge space he renovated.

How wrong we were. Over the years, some major talents have had a hand there. Gerry Klaskala, chef/owner of Aria, consulted on the restaurant's menu at one point. Mike Tuohy, chef/owner of Woodfire Grill, worked there as chef after his first restaurant in Atlanta, Chefs' Cafe, closed.

I don't remember my last meal at Murphy's. It was probably three years ago or longer, and when I walked into the restaurant last week, I was struck by what a comfortable and beautiful space it is. The design is earnest and free of theatrical gimmicks. There's a big waiting area with a bar that hosts regular wine tastings. One dining room has a rafter-like ceiling. There's lots of brick. And the largest dining area, windowed from floor to ceiling, wraps about the building.

If you miss theatrical design, you'll forget it as soon as you sample executive chef Nick Oltarsh's menu, which provided one of the best meals I've had in weeks. The day's soup when I visited was a piquant and aromatic pozole, the Mexican stew of hominy and pork. The broth was a bit light. I'm betting Oltarsh didn't haul in hogs' heads to boil, as is common in Mexico and some taquerias around town. But then this was a starter - not dinner, as it's customarily served. A regular starter, a warm tarragon biscuit with ham baked in molasses and maple syrup, pitted intense sweetness against tart pommery mustard.

Entrees were flat-out fabulous. Sauteed striped bass, silky skinned and snow white, was served over a navy bean ragout with broccoli - two smooth textures, one oceanic and one earthen, with the crunch of young broccoli. That was a special. My beef brisket, a regular menu item, beat every version of this now ubiquitous dish. Oltarsh slices the brisket rather thin and layers it over a mound of creamy whipped potatoes washed in the brisket's juices. You encounter cabbage and cauliflower here and there. And garnishing the beef is a powerful red-onion gremolata that adds piquancy to a dish that is ordinarily a tour of oily textures and tastes.

Dessert? Pastry chef John Hamstra makes the best bread pudding I have eaten in memory. It's made of challa, shaped like a little cake that's been iced with creme anglaise. Custard and cream charm any child, but you - being a grown-up - get a strong shot of whiskey in your cream.

Servers, decked out in white shirts and long white aprons, don't miss a beat. Our server, Piya, is herewith declared Waitron of the Week. Someone should make her a pillow of that bread pudding.

Vietnamese Jewel??
If you aren't up to a meal in Virginia-Highland, get in your car and drive as fast as you can to Com (4005 E. Buford Highway, 404-320-0405). This new Vietnamese restaurant, whose name means "rice," distinguishes itself by specializing in grilled meats. I thank reader Jay Pontrelli for recommending it.

Like Thai restaurants, Vietnamese restaurants tend to be carbon copies of one another. But Com joins Nam and Bien Thuy as being unique. Try charcoal-grilled mussels or select several of the many rice-paper rolls for starters. Grilled lamb and duck, relatively rare in local Viet spots, are bound with carrots, something like daikon, herbs and peanuts. You can also have rolls stuffed with grilled fish or shrimp.

The restaurant also offers a unique apple salad you may want to share as a starter. You can choose your meat to garnish it, but the waiter insisted we have grilled duck. The duck, somewhat oily, is a good contrast with the crisp, tart apples. It also includes peanuts, browned "tobacco" onions, green onions and carrots. Spike your fish sauce with some red chili paste, pour it over the salad and toss it.

Flounder over "fragrant rice" is also garnished with the tobacco onions and is served with a fish sauce flavored with ginger. It was excellent, but if you want to try something really unique, order one of the flat-rice vermicelli dishes. These are chewy little cakes of rice noodles (banh hoi). Wrap them with your choice of meat or fish in lettuce leaves with herbs before dunking in fish sauce. If you want to get stranger still, order the banh hoi with grilled meat or fish wrapped in grape leaves. That's right, grape leaves. This was a totally new taste to me. The chef, who came out now and then to greet customers, assured me no other Vietnamese restaurant in town is serving the dish. I ordered the grape leaves filled with minced beef, served over the banh hoi. They had a deeply smoky taste and contrasted brilliantly to the lettuce, herbs and fish sauce. The plate was also garnished with little strips of grilled, marinated beef, bits of green onion and more of the tobacco onions.

Portions are huge. Prices are low. The staff is friendly and mainly proficient in English. The restaurant walls are burnt orange hung with paintings of coastal views of various Asian cities. Go!

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

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