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Lidia's lineage

La Tavola gets a new chef, plus a revisit to Las Palmeras

Rick Rambuss, a foodie friend on faculty at Emory, told me a few weeks ago that I'm too nice to restaurants in print and too mean in person. This, I told him, is exactly the opposite of what I am usually told, it often being followed with the further observation that I am interesting in print but boring in person, extroverted on the page but shy in public. Personally, I think I'm fat and ugly in print but hot as hell in person. No? Whatever! Critics deserve criticism.

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I did explain to Rick that because much of my writing here is first impressions of new restaurants, I typically do make an effort to cut those restaurants a break. For example, I've heard a zillion complaints about Piebar from friends, but in my visit just after they opened, I thought they were doing a commendable job considering the instant Super Bowl-sized crowds. Indeed, one of my most vociferously complaining friends admitted he has been there four times in less than two weeks. People like to carp. Me? I'm a gastronomical sunbeam for Jesus.

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Rick, I'm sorry, but I have only nice things to say about this week's lead restaurant. I've enjoyed La Tavola Trattoria (992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430) since its opening, and especially during the period when Joey Masi was chef there. (Masi was last seen cooking at One Midtown Kitchen. I have no idea where he is now.) Recently, the restaurant, part of the same group that owns Sala and South City Kitchen, has hired another strong talent: Craig Richards.

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Richards was hired by La Tavola in May after five years with Lidia Bastianich, known for her PBS series as well as her New York restaurants and cookbooks. Richards worked for the Lidia's in Kansas City and became the opening executive chef at a new Lidia's in Pittsburgh in 2001.

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He appears to be a perfect fit for La Tavola. Bastianich is famous for perfecting Italian-American cooking. Although native Italian, when she moved to the United States in 1958, she found that in order to attract diners to her first restaurant, she had to cook the "impure" version of Southern Italian cooking that had become popular in this country and now amounts to an American regional inflection.

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La Tavola, too, tends to accent Italian-American cooking. There's nothing unauthentic about it and the restaurant has an enormous following. It was packed on a Monday night when most restaurants around town close or impersonate tombs.

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Richards has only made a few changes on the menu but we liked all of them. I'll start with the least impressive, a beet salad with shaved fennel, Granny Smith apples, goat cheese and a red wine vinaigrette. We've been spoiled by Scott Peacock's slow-roasted beets at Watershed and these don't seem quite up to primo quality. This is a tiny complaint and I don't mean to imply that Wayne didn't wipe the last streak of pink juice from the plate.

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A new app of roasted shrimp with grilled polenta and braised radicchio features an irresistible sauce of lemons, white wine and capers. OK, I admit the $10.50 price was the one hard thing hard to swallow, especially considering that only three shrimp were on the plate. Personally, I'd like a thinner polenta cake, cooked a bit crisp, too.

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Richards has added veal marsala to the menu. I loved it in part because it's a mild version, the wine a background flavor instead of overwhelming the entire plate as usual. The veal is served with mushrooms, sautéed spinach and some mashed potatoes heavily spiked with horseradish.

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Wayne's entree was my favorite dish — risotto with leeks and a mushroom ragu, lightly seasoned with truffle oil and topped with a slice of crispy speck. I've eaten a good bit at La Tavola over the years and I think this is my favorite dish ever.

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Desserts have not changed and we ordered the fatties' plate that gives you a sample of everything. The best by far is the panna cotta, followed by the tiramisu. Perhaps we were in a custardy mood.

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Service remains flawless and friendly. Our server, Britton, Waitron of the Week, was educated about the menu and helpful. The host remained pleasant even though we asked to be moved inside after taking a seat on the patio. And not a server there blinked when a woman walked through the restaurant in a get-up that would do Britney Spears proud if she ever decided to do a remake of Linda Lovelace's "Deep Throat." I was whipped on the cheek by the glittering, sequin scarf thingy tied around her waist as she walked by, but I've been whipped by worse.

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Atonement in Midtown

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Geez, I hate it when the AJC scoops me in the race to self-flagellation and atonement. But give me credit for admitting I visited Las Palmeras (368 Fifth St., 404-872-0846) last week to atone for recent erroneous reporting that my favorite Cuban cafe had closed. While there, I learned the AJC had published a brief review last week but did not mention that they too were atoning for the same inaccurate reporting.

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Las Palmeras is alive and well.

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Honestly, I love this 13-year-old restaurant stuck next to a convenience market in an unlikely location. All the atonement seems to be paying off because the restaurant was quite crowded on a Wednesday night — not that it hasn't had a devoted following for years.

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We both ordered our usual — masitas de puerco for me, and Cuban-seasoned fried chicken for Wayne. Masitas de puerco are chunks of roasted pork topped with mojo, the lemony-garlic sauce full of onions that figures in much of Cuban cooking. On the side, we both ordered black beans and rice and fried yucca, for which I demanded more mojo.

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My one disappointment was the flan. It was far too airy, uncharacteristic of the restaurant, where I've had intensely dense flan in the past. Much better was Wayne's rice pudding, an inelegantly plated version warmed up and heavily dusted with cinnamon.

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The restaurant has spruced itself up a bit since my last visit. Or perhaps I never before noticed the many vintage pictures of Cuba.

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



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