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Sampan surpasses its cafe counterpart, plus eating around L5P

Apart from its decor, I wasn't wild about Cafe Sampan, the informal adjunct to Sampan (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-367-8333) when I visited a few weeks ago. The two restaurants have taken over the spot vacated by the relentlessly vaunted and suffocatingly trendy Commune, in the same complex as Bacchanalia. I expected to find the more formal Sampan no more impressive than its casual sidekick, but I'm happy to say I was wrong.

The new restaurant is an amazing space. Well, it's amazing to walk into any new restaurant in a warehouse development these days and not find the usual sandblasted brick walls that require commentary about patina and urban gentrification. The owner-designed space is all glass and mirrors - so effectively done that I was afraid at first to take a step for fear of bumping into a glass wall. Most mercifully, the mirrored walls are situated so that you don't have to sit in front of your face-feeding image. Instead, the mirrors extend the space and bend your mind.

The restroom needs to be added to the Atlanta Tour of Kick-Ass Cans. The common anteroom features a huge smoky mirror and intense red lighting. A humongous, red floor lamp at the restaurant's entrance is also mind-boggling. And by all means, make a reservation so you can land a seat in one of the huge gold-upholstered booths, which, according to our server, are modeled after an imperial throne. They are lettered, and our server, nephew of the owner, happily translated various characters for us.

The restaurant had been open only about three weeks when I visited, so as always, I caution that this is a first impression. (Indeed, I have returned once to the Cafe and found it better.) We sampled three appetizers: sliced beef flavored with anise, salt-and-pepper calamari with tomato salsa, and Japanese-style eggplant stuffed with whole shrimp, served with a black-bean sauce. Only the squid disappointed us. It's more like tempura than the classic salt-and-pepper treatment and, although the squid was tender, I found the coating too heavy. These dim sum-style dishes give you your first indication of the kitchen's aesthetic. Everything is gorgeously plated and garnished. The most trivial ingredients, like chopped red peppers and tomatoes, burst with flavor.

Entrees, which are all described with a recommended wine, were equally good. Delicate steamed sea bass was served over tofu - groovy textural contrast - and anointed Hong Kong-style with black-bean sauce. Sampan's seared lamb tenderloin is my favorite lamb dish this year. Slices of the medium-rare meat were garnished with a strawberry that made no sense to me until I tasted the almost fiery sauce of lamb juices spiked with hot chili oil. It's Chinese, yes, but the combination of fruity and fiery flavors instantly reminded me of Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, N.M. None of that sacrifices the lamb's natural flavor, but I'm betting a lot of diners are going to find the sauce too sharp.

Dessert was a hard chocolate cube containing white and dark chocolate mousse. Even that hit the spot.

There is much to explore here. The trendy fave, beef brisket, shows up, but in classic five-spice style. There's lobster tempura with creamy black-bean sauce and a lump crab cake in a curry sauce with watercress. Finally, the music rocks. I mean it doesn't. It's a great blend of everyone from Sinatra to Buddha Bar.

In L5P-Inman ParkAfter twice trying to get seated at the now defunct Teaspace, Wayne and I had to settle for other restaurants in the Little Five Points-Inman Park area.

We returned to Inman Park Patio after a visit five or six months ago. At that time, the restaurant had hired a new chef, but his new menu had not yet debuted. So when I returned this visit, I was surprised to see the same menu we'd encountered at our last visit.

"I thought you had a new chef," I said to the hostess as we left.

"Oh, he didn't work out," she said. "But we will have a new menu in a few weeks. Really!"

Whatever. I'll believe it when I see it.

We did have a good meal, but geez, the restaurant can cut the appetizer portions way back. We literally had to box our entrees for later eating. The gnocchi appetizer was entree-sized and delicious - much better than the usual you find in our town. The tender little potato dumplings were sauced with a pesto and showered in grated parmesan. A butter bean salad was also huge and full of al dente peas as well as (slightly overcooked) butter beans. Feta spiked the salad.

My entree of simple linguini with meatballs warmed nicely the next day. I like meatballs with a bit more gristle to them, but I have no other complaints. Wayne's pizza, I have to say, was not impressive. Of course, it was some all-you-can-eat deal and the chef chose the ingredients - half veggies and half chicken. Bland.

When we were next unable to get a table at Teaspace, we landed at Savage Pizza. Yummy as usual. It's the variety of six sauces and the unusual themes - Cajun pizza that actually tastes good, for example - that make Savage special. And you have to love the superhero decor.

Here and thereCheck out Uncle Harry's Sandwich Shop on Auburn Avenue at Randolph Street if you're looking for true Chicago-style deli fare. The owner, whom we wish a speedy recovery, recently had open-heart surgery. ...

Reader Scott Ferguson writes, "I have been laughing for weeks regarding your Popeye's on Ponce experiences. I have been having the same experiences there for years! And I, too, return to the scene of the crime repeatedly - after I have calmed down from the prior bad trip, developed a craving, and optimistically decided to give them one more chance." Scott says he's discovered a new killer pho cafe on Buford Highway: "It's in the same strip mall as Rincon Latino, but at the other end (the north end), basically across the street from Toyotaya Sushi Buffet and Taco Veloz."

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



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