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One step beyond

Top Floor does delicious on the cheap

It's a good sign when a server seems genuinely enthusiastic about the menu she has just handed you. That was our experience at Top Floor (674 Myrtle St., 404-685-3110) last week. "It's amazing," she said, beaming. "You'll see."

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We were already feeling lucky to be there. This newcomer, earlier the home of DaVinci's, may be among the smallest full-service restaurants in the city. It's two levels, with the ground floor featuring a bar, the kitchen and a couple of tables. There are also a few tables on the sidewalk where you can watch Mary Mac regulars track the scent of fried chicken across the street.

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The main dining room is upstairs, and we're talking a steep climb. If you're disabled, you're out of luck, so be sure to make a reservation for a downstairs table. My ongoing knee problems make descending stairs difficult but not impossible, so we were able to dine upstairs. I left by way of the outside fire escape, feeling like an empty-handed burglar.

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As far as I recollect, the upstairs has not changed since the DaVinci days. The tables are annoyingly small, as they have to be, because the room itself is small. As usual, Wayne and I dragged books with us, and we had to put them on the floor.

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I had the sense that many of the diners were repeat customers. Top Floor, whose logo and sign say "TOP FLR" for reasons too cool for me to decode, is open until 1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, until 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday and until midnight Sunday. The kitchen closes at about 11 p.m., so it's mainly a club crowd after then. I haven't checked out that scene.

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But you're not here to party or spread out in an oversized booth. You're here to sample chef Mike Schorn's delectable menu. I should mention, before you draw the wrong conclusion, that the restaurant is inexpensive. I don't mean inexpensive by the standards of the usual Midtown restaurant. I mean cheap, as in, "Let's come back later this week."

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Much of the food gains its quality from interesting tweaking of classics. For example, Mediterranean-style skewers of lamb are served over couscous made of cauliflower, and the customary tzatziki is made with daikon. The flavors, combined with the tender lamb, were pleasantly disorienting. Ditto for a white-bean hummus seasoned with chili oil, served with flat bread that was – my only complaint – a bit soggy for dipping into the thick spread.

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Other starters include a cheese plate, edamame with citrus ponzu, bruschetta, and mussels steamed in a broth seasoned with coconut, lime and soy. There's also salmon flat bread.

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The menu includes only five entrees (and the restaurant was out of one of them, roasted pork tenderloin with sherry-thyme-Vidalia jus). There are also a couple of pizzas and two pasta dishes.

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I decided to try the pizza made with duck confit, applewood bacon and grilled portobello mushrooms. Its presentation – rectangular and served on what looks like a meditation bench – will remind you a bit of Piebar. The pizza, thin-crusted, was crowded with toppings, and I couldn't eat but half of it. Of course, I had also ordered a side dish of grilled asparagus with cherry tomatoes, simply done and delicious.

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Wayne tried the menu's one vegetarian entree: pan-roasted, ginger-crusted tofu with a pomegranate-miso dressing. It certainly ranks as one of the best vegetarian dishes I've encountered in a long time.

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Other entrees include a grilled hanger steak with a shallot demi-glace, roasted salmon with a citrus tapenade, a roasted baby chicken with tarragon verjus and the fire-roasted pork. There's a free-form ravioli with shrimp, veggies and grape tomatoes, and a margarita pizza, too.

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Dessert. Decatur's Chocolate Bar had better watch its back. Taria Camerino, the pastry chef, offers a menu of chocolate extravagances. Her specialty is truffles made with an almost surreal appeal. Five were offered the night we visited, but two had already sold out. They ain't cheap, by the way, considering that each is two tastes at most. You'll spend less than $10 for three.

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My three included one with fennel, apple and white chocolate; another (my favorite) with milk chocolate and caramel topped with fancy salt; and another milk chocolate infused with genmaicha (green tea with brown rice), then rolled in candied brown rice with matcha green tea.

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All of the ingredients had designer, high-pedigree brand names. And all offered completely novel tastes. It's cool to taste something completely new.

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Wayne ordered a regular dessert of a dark-chocolate flourless cake served with – sit down – tobacco-infused ice cream. We shuddered to imagine it, but actually couldn't taste anything resembling a Marlboro. Our server explained that a very small portion of tobacco goes into a gallon of the ice cream.

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Inexpensive, great service, quirky ambiance, creative and delicious food. What more could you want? Make a reservation now.

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Here and there

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Russell Paulsen has opened Paulsen's Foods (748 Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, 404-873-1804) in west Atlanta. The shop specializes in prepared gourmet foods such as crab cakes, quail Wellington, shrimp cakes, salmon Oscar and braised-beef pot pie. The shop also includes a butcher for choice hand-cut beef and pork. Fresh seasonal fish are also available, along with Georgia-grown produce and flowers. Paulsen has been supplying restaurants for years. ...

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Howard Garnel writes: "Did you know that the U.S. Café in Smyrna is 20 years old? They serve the best burgers in the Atlanta area and are often overlooked by most people outside of Smyrna. ..."

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Calavino Donati, former owner of the Roman Lily Café, has assumed management of the Oakhurst Grill, which has been renamed Calavino's (350 Mead Road, 404-270-9575). Andiamo to Go, selling prepared meals to go, will be next door. The restaurant will reprise many favorites from Roman Lily.



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