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Worth a Diem

The specials and sexy servers of the Diem restaurants

Does ambiance really matter?

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"Of course it does," a friend told me. "That's what Andy's restaurants are all about."

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The "Andy" under discussion is Andy Alibaksh, who scored a hit more than a decade ago when he opened the decidedly funky Cafe Diem on North Highland Avenue (in the building where Eclipse di Sol is today).

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A favorite of Atlanta's tiny boho set, home to spoken-word performances on the patio and a place to kick back with a café au lait and a book, Cafe Diem was unique in a city that seems to favor theatrical, large-scale design. The menu was light fare, such as salads and sandwiches on baguettes. The service was notoriously slow, but then, you were never in a hurry when you visited Cafe Diem.

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Everyone wept when Andy closed the cafe because of escalating rents. More shocking, he joined the shopping center set by reopening under the name Apres Diem (931 Monroe Drive, 404-872-3333) in Midtown Promenade next to the movie theater. Subsequently, he opened Carpe Diem (105 Sycamore Place, 404-687-9696) in Decatur. Meanwhile, he'd taken over Carroll Street Cafe (208 Carroll St., 404-577-2700) located in the Cabbagetown studio of the deceased artist Panorama Ray. Since I live in Grant Park, I frequently visit the Carroll Street Cafe, whose chalkboard of nightly specials usually offers better dishes than are on the regular menu.

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Last week, Wayne and I revisited Apres Diem and Carpe Diem for the first time in well over a year. Both restaurants were humming, although nearly everyone was sitting on the patio. As far as interiors go, Carpe Diem, located in an old ice factory, is the more dramatic. The main dining room — literally empty when we visited — is the usual industrial fluff job. But the upstairs includes an intimate, low-lit bar space where people lounge in upholstered furniture and eat off low tables. One expects to see a hookah.

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Apres Diem likewise includes a cozy lounge area around the corner from its bar. The dining room there, a rather gloomy space, was also empty when we visited. We joined everyone else on the patio, at tables nearly as shoulder-to-shoulder close as the typical Parisian sidewalk cafe's seating. It still astonishes me what a good job Andy has done with this space and how well it manages to communicate the alternative spirit of the original Cafe Diem, despite its location.

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Another thing about the ambiance: Apres Diem has the best-looking waitstaff in Atlanta, both genders included. You could easily trip over yourself if you try to walk to the restroom and look at a staff member at the same time.

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The food? It's still, as always, a mixed experience. We started at Carpe Diem with a charcuterie plate and a cheese plate. The charcuterie included some decent cured meats — salami and prosciutto, for example — and a dollop of vegetable salad ensconced in radicchio leaves. The cheese plate was less appealing, featuring four common varieties and a lot of fruit. I know cheese is expensive these days, but I think my $9 should buy at least one interesting cheese.

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Entrees, I'm sorry to say, were just bizarre. Among the specials was elk, which we've never seen on an Atlanta menu before. Curiosity led Wayne to order it, but it's an odd special to be offering in summer. The meat itself was tender but its flavor was completely overwhelmed by a topping of browned onions that caused the meat to taste like it had been marinated in onion soup.

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I ordered the menu's regular wood-grilled lamb chops with a citrus-mint demiglace. Oy. I asked the server at the outset how many chops I'd get and she said it was typically three weighing about 8 ounces. She did not tell me, however, that there would literally be more fat than meat on two of the chops. I'm not kidding. My plate was piled with fat. I did complain to the server that I'd never been served such fatty chops. She ogled my plate and mumbled that it did seem like more fat than usual. Do not order this dish unless you're on a special high-fat diet.

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Both dishes included the same sides: asparagus, potatoes au gratin and roasted Indian eggplant. No complaints.

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None of this comes cheap. Entrees were more than $20 each.

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Prices are lower at Apres Diem and the food is typically better. I ate lightly here before seeing The Da Vinci Code, which I highly recommend you avoid as deliberately as the aforementioned lamb chops.

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We started with a plate of baba ghanouj, the Lebanese puree of seasoned grilled eggplant, served with slices of warm, fluffy pita bread. The stuff wasn't bad, but it was so over-seasoned that the taste of the eggplant barely came through. "Whatever it is, it tastes OK to me," Wayne said.

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He selected pork confit — another odd summertime offering — as an entree from the specials. It was the best thing we ordered from either restaurant. The tender pork was served with an apple-brandy-thyme marmalade. Regardless of the weather, give it a try.

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I ordered the salade Nicoise, but almost retracted my order when the server asked me how I wanted my tuna cooked. I really dislike fresh tuna on this classic salad and the piece of grilled tuna I received was inedible. It was gray on the outside and bright red at the center, looking and tasting as if it had been quick-thawed and microwaved. The rest of the salad — lettuce, rice, eggs, anchovies, tomatoes — was great. But I'd rather have good canned tuna any day.

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Desserts have never been a strong suit at any of these restaurants. I did order a banana tart at Apres Diem and it was typical commercial bakery fare. Not great, not horrible.

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Both Apres Diem and Carpe Diem remain great spots to hang out with a glass of wine or a cup of espresso. If you're going to have dinner, you'll be happiest with something chosen from the menu of specials.



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