Rain check

Asian restaurant replaces South of France

It was a shock when South of France closed a few months ago. The restaurant had been around as long as I can remember, and while the food was never predictable and more retro than classic, the experience was usually delightfully kitschy.

The big stone fireplace is about the only thing left behind in the remodeling of the space by the new tenant, Rain (2345 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-325-6963). The "Asian fusion" restaurant's look is minimalist, especially in the lobby area, where the ceiling has been dropped and installed with something like black-light fixtures that cast an eerie blue light. The room's walls are basically plate glass windows and you sit on booth-type seats. The effect is like sitting on a train, even if the only view is of cars in the parking lot.

The main dining room, with the inevitable glass waterfall, is warmer, but a rear one is likewise chilly, with frosty lighting that illuminates a series of rectangles in lapis blue, Wayne's favorite color.

The evening of our visit, a few gorgeous women with very warm personalities staffed the restaurant. One explained that the restaurant mainly specializes in Japanese dishes, especially sushi, and also Thai cuisine. I asked about the Thai restaurant, Jitlada, a few doors down, and she said it was scheduled to close in a few months.

Our meal was mainly good. For a starter, we decided to share "Four Seasons," the chef's selection of raw fish with garnishes. It was served in four little glass globes. There was spicy (almost fiery) tuna with cucumber, lobster salad with crunchy tempura, conch with seaweed and hamachi with salad greens. All of the fish had clear flavor, as did garnishes. We also ordered a "crazy roll" – salmon skin, eel, masago, asparagus and avocado. I love salmon-skin rolls, but they are often disappointing because the skin, which should be hot and crispy, has been cooked ahead and is oily and flaccid. Rain gets it right.

Entrees, frankly, were less satisfying. At least mine was. I ordered the soft-shell crab, principally because, offering "Indian spice," it is the one dish that deviates from the otherwise Thai and Japanese menu. The crab itself was cooked fine – crispy, salty and juicy. But its sauce was an exercise in gross excess. It was lots of larblike minced chicken with veggies in a vaguely Indian-tasting curry. The best I can say is that it tasted better than it looked. Mainly it was just overkill.

Wayne ordered barbecued eel over rice. This was one of my favorite dishes at a restaurant near Pershing Point that has been closed for many years. I burned out on it, I ate it so often. But if you've never had it, you should try it here.

You'll also find sashimi plates here, the usual Thai curries, teriyaki and noodle dishes including one called "face towel spaghetti." I asked. I got a full description of the dish's ingredients but no explanation of the "face towel."

Desserts were mainly uninteresting cakes of the sort you'd find in any restaurant, so we skipped that course.

Lunch at Trois

As you probably know, Trois was recently named one of the best new restaurants by John Mariani of Esquire. (Shaun's also received the designation.)

Embarrassingly, I hadn't made it to Trois until last week. It received so much positive press so quickly that I was frankly more than a bit skeptical. How does Bob Amick, principal owner of Concentrics Restaurants, which operates Trois, do it? He keeps opening one winner after another.

I visited the restaurant for lunch Monday. I'll get my one complaint out of the way immediately. There is no restroom on the dining-room level of the three-tier restaurant. For people like me, whose knee surgery has made negotiating stairs very difficult, this is a hassle. Even if you take the elevator downstairs to the bar, you encounter a step. So if you're in a wheelchair, you'll need to go upstairs to the private dining level where the restroom doors look like part of a wood mausoleum. I'm not kidding. Then when you get in, you'll see a sign that says the "flush button is on the right." On the right of what? I'll never tell!

Complaint over. Chef Jeremy Lieb and pastry chef Jonathan St. Hilaire really deserve all the raves they've received. I'm still ruminating the watercress salad with which my lunch began. It featured socca, the little cakes of fried chickpea flour you eat in Provence, with piquillos and a truffle vin dressing. My friend Jeff started with classic French onion soup, sweet with a bracing broth, gooey with melted Gruyere.

My entree of beef bourguignonne featured small chunks of braised beef with bacon, mushrooms and butter noodles. It was a gigantic portion, at least for lunch, and I couldn't eat more than half – partly because I wanted to sample St. Hilaire's desserts. Jeff ordered roasted chicken in its natural jus with carrots and potatoes – simple, without affectation, perfect.

For dessert I chose the "cheesecake coupe." It was a mound of cheesecake sorbet with mango chutney, pineapple gelee and coconut crumble: slightly sour, slightly sweet, fruity, crunchy, creamy. Jeff ordered a lemon tart topped with blueberry crème-fraiche ice cream. Both desserts, obviously, are for grown-up palates. What a concept!

Service at the restaurant, which had a light lunch crowd, is as good as everything else. Our server was well-educated about the menu and didn't have to run back to the kitchen every time I asked what an ingredient was. The poor education of servers in town continues to mystify me. It's not uncommon for a server to volunteer his favorite dish and when I ask exactly what the ingredients are he gives me a blank look.

Three cheers for Trois. If you haven't been, you'd better go.

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