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Carb crossover

Ryan Aiken reopens Burrito Art as Saba, plus a revisit to Oakhurst Grill

I was always a little mystified by Ryan Aiken, a gifted chef who devoted his talent to making burritos. It's not that I minded. I ate so many of his Thai chicken burritos at the original Burrito Art in East Atlanta that there finally arrived the day I could not even look at one. Not long after, Aiken sold the restaurant and turned the west side location of Burrito Art into an excellent Italian spot, Misto. Good timing.

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Now, the last Burrito Art, the one across from Emory, has closed. Aiken has reopened it as Saba (1451 Oxford Road, 404-377-7786), a pasta joint. Although Aiken's decision to get out of the over-populated burrito biz is understandable, it's a bit surprising that he's gone into the nearly as populated pasta business.

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But just as his burritos were the best in town, his new pasta shop is better than the average, too. One thing you don't get is much atmosphere. There's the usual bric-a-brac and a Piccadilly-style corridor to stand in, like a cow awaiting branding. You order at the counter and wander to a table in the rather gloomy dining room.

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Starters are limited to salads. They are huge portions that can easily be split. The arugula salad is a heap of tender greens lightly doused with olive oil and lemon juice and garnished with papery shavings of grana padano. Lusciously peppery, it is a clean, simple start.

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The B.A. Salad is one of a handful of dishes that pay tribute to the old Burrito Art. It's mixed field greens with roma tomatoes, grilled red peppers and red onions, black beans, roasted rice and feta cheese with an orange-balsamic vinaigrette. Order it. You can add chicken or tofu to make it an entree, if you like.

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I was happy to find linguine with clams in a white wine sauce on the menu. I've been craving it for weeks. The dish was a bit salty but included a big helping of fresh clams, some left in their shells. You can also order the dish with a tomato sauce.

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Wayne picked another Burrito Art tribute dish — one that recalls my once-favorite Thai chicken burrito. Now the chicken is enfolded in fresh spinach ravioli and served under a Thai peanut curry sauce. The colors could precipitate an LSD flashback, but it's a great variation on the old flavors.

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The menu features 16 different pastas, including a lamb fettuccine ragu and pumpkin ravioli, along with classic spaghetti and meatballs. There are six sandwiches made with ciabatta, featuring cured meats like bresaola and prosciutto. There is no dessert, although our server told us that Aiken is "experimenting." Please, no Thai chicken tiramisu!

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Service at the new place is informal, rather like the old Fellini's. Wayne decided to show his age by commenting to the server that he liked the orange boxers revealed by his drooping pants. The server thanked him and I chastised Wayne for acting like a geriatric, which only prompted him to bark at the server in an old man's voice: "Hey, ya unnapants is hanging out!" Never a dull moment.

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Back to Oakhurst

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I recently received an e-mail from Michael Condon, owner of the Oakhurst Grill (350 Mead Road, 404-270-9575, www.oakhurstgrill.com), asking me to revisit his restaurant. When I visited last year, the restaurant was serving New Orleans-inspired food that fell far short of the mark. Indeed, I ordered a jambalaya that I returned to the kitchen, it was so inedibly spicy.

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Condon, a veteran of 20 years in Manhattan kitchens, has taken over the cooking at the restaurant and created a new menu of "American regional" dishes.

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Is it any better?

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Much. I started with a whimsical concoction — a Portobello mushroom cap topped with garlic-spiked mashed potatoes glazed with melted parmesan, served over some arugula in a white truffle-lemon vinaigrette. I know it sounds bizarre but I loved the dish — the creamy potatoes, the springy mushroom, the barely chewy parmesan, the zingy arugula.

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Wayne started with a single crab cake with mango-cucumber salad and ginger syrup. I'm personally over crab cakes, but this was a decent one.

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Our entrees were better, too. Wayne ordered panko-crusted grouper over jasmine rice with stir-fried julienned veggies and classic nuoc cham, the popular Vietnamese dipping sauce made here a bit sweeter than I like it.

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I ordered the lamb shank, a huge one, served over mashed potatoes with lots of squash and a rosemary au jus. It was a major presentation, with vertical garnishes of a rosemary sprig and a fried green onion.

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For dessert we ordered the irresistible hot beignets, as we did at our first visit.

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The service remains very good. In fact, I proclaim Michelle as Waitron of the Week. She was able to make menu recommendations without the usual robotic style.

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Here and there

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My old friend David Frances recently regaled me with a harrowing tale of dining in a downtown restaurant. After sampling the salad bar, he and his companion decided to leave but were convinced by the manager to stay for entrees. David told the manager that he'd give it a try but if it was as bad as the salad bar, he was leaving.

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Served a dreadful entree, he announced that he was leaving and the manager told him he would call the police. David left anyway without paying. Unfortunately, he left his cell phone on the table, which the restaurant then held hostage for payment. Meanwhile, they indeed called the police, from whom David was able to recover his phone.

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Nelu Gulu wrote me this about Fuzzy's, reviewed here recently:

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"The place is surreal. Although it has the elements of a pub, I am not sure that it has the character of a pub. I think that people should be given a strong warning before going there. I mean, Fox News is prominently playing on the wall near the band and the live act is very cheesy. (Who plays 'Pretty Woman' by Orbison in a pub anymore?) The service is indeed very good, but my calamari weren't."

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As I wrote, Nelu, it's precisely the rather surreal ambiance that I like about Fuzzy's!



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