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Tap dance

Toe-tapping from Midtown to Cabbagetown

Here's a dilemma. You're hungry. You have two choices. You can go to Tap (1180 Peachtree St., 404-347-2220), the new, almost glamorous gastropub, or you can hang out at Cabbagetown Market and Little's Grill (198 Carroll St., 404-221-9186), a low-key, funky deli cum gourmet convenience store.

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Most days, I'm going to pick the latter. For one thing, I don't drink alcohol and, for another, I just seem to be wired for the offbeat instead of the glamorous. Give me Cabbagetown Market's unabridged dictionary open on the counter with no explanation before you make me ogle the bright-red deer overlooking the scene at Tap.

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Tap is the latest in the burgeoning empire of Bob Amick's Concentrics Restaurants, which includes One Midtown Kitchen, Two Urban Licks, Trois and Piebar. Amick, as everyone knows, helped kick Atlanta's restaurant scene several light years ahead during the '70s with his role in the Peasant Restaurant group. After a long hiatus, he returned with Concentrics a few years ago and, as was true in the '70s, if a restaurant needs to be called "trendy" today, it's almost certainly an Amick project.

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Although gastropubs – pubs with serious gastronomical pretensions – have been popular in the U.K. since the early '90s, the idea is new to Atlanta. Oh, we've seen a handful of pubs in town take their food menu more seriously in recent years, but none has approached the seriousness of the Brits' gastropubs.

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And Todd Ginsberg, Tap's executive chef, is a serious talent. He's widely traveled and trained and, honestly, he seems a bit overqualified for this menu of mainly small plates of snack food meant to accompany the pub's impressive list of beers.

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I visited Tap only about a week after it had opened, so this is a first impression. The food ranged from good to mediocre. Among small plates, we most liked a snack of chocolate spread on toast with extra-virgin olive oil and slices of chorizo. Your $3 buys two big slices of the addictive stuff.

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I wasn't at all fond of the calamari spiked with hot sauce, à la Buffalo chicken wings, and tossed with slices of celery. The menu says blue cheese is in the mix, but it was clearly left off our plate. The squid was tender, with good flavor. I'm just tired of chefs' preoccupation with takes on Buffalo chicken wings. If you're not – and Wayne isn't – you'll love the dish.

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Another snack plate of deviled eggs with baby arugula salad was also problematic. The eggs' stuffing was too creamy and too mustardy. But a bowl of crispy chickpeas, a low-cal substitute for peanuts, was fun. They tasted like a light version of corn nuts.

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Entrees fared somewhat better. Wayne's Alaskan halibut with creamed peas and spaetzle was a huge serving with great taste and texture. My own dish sounded better than it tasted – organic "freebird" chicken with an artichoke stew. The dish featured a breast over the stew, which, besides artichokes, included carrots and haricots verts. I'm tempted to say it was very British because it was so bland. It needs something.

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I'm sorry to say desserts weren't very well executed. "Soaked brown sugar cake" tasted like a very dry cupcake. It was topped with mascarpone and surrounded by peach slices, the best part of the dish. An oatmeal-cookie sandwich filled with ice cream made with stout wasn't a lot better.

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The new two-level restaurant was packed during our visit and, contrary to some other reports I've heard, we enjoyed great service. The restaurant doesn't have the high style of most other Amick venues, although elaborate brewery equipment is on display. The red deer is the primary visual feature, if you don't count the menu itself. It's a postmodern design titled "Choices" and features a graphic of the palate.

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In Cabbagetown

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Meanwhile, I am really loving Cabbagetown Market and Little's Grill. This place was operated as a conventional neighborhood market by the same family for 80 years. Now its new owners have turned it into a kind of gourmet convenience store and deli. You can buy organic produce, designer vinegars and pickles, somewhat arcane canned goods, sliced meats, cheeses, fancy butter, weird cigarettes, Lavazza espresso, and some of the best sandwiches in town.

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I've sampled three of them. My favorite has been the three-layer muffuletta, which, considering the store's ambiance, will immediately put you in mind of New Orleans' Central Grocery. If you don't like olive salad, you can choose Hungarian salami with radishes or bufala mozzarella with basil and tomatoes with the best flavor I've encountered so far this summer. The hamburger, which I have not tried, draws rave reviews from friends.

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There are also savory salads, including one made of corn and black beans, another featuring beets and, my favorite, a ratatouille with lots of artichoke hearts. You should order some fried pickles, too. Everyone loves tempura made with sour bread-and-butter pickles, right?

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The store includes a counter for eating in. While you wait for your sandwich, you can browse the inventory or check out pictures of Cabbagetown residents from way back when.

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Middle Eastern treat

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We visited Nicola's on Lavista recently for the first time in years and had a terrific meal. This Lebanese restaurant is a spectacular bargain. Its most expensive dish is the lamb shank ($12.95), a version that far surpasses the average in town. The meat is served off the bone, free of most fat but juicy and tender with mildly garlicky seasoning.

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There are mezze plates for only $9.95, including the restaurant's hummus, grape leaves, baba ghanoush, artichoke hearts, tabbouleh and other Middle Eastern specialties.

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If you go on Friday or Saturday night, you can also watch belly dancing. In fact, you can watch it close-up, since the dancers shake their stuff tableside for tips.



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