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Man of Steel

Asian fusion transplanted from Dallas

"Where did the name come from?" I asked our server.

"From the Dallas restaurant," he said.

"Uh, I mean, why was the word picked in the first place?"

"I'll try to find out," he replied.

Someone else, apparently the manager, stopped by our table, and I asked him the same question.

"'Steel' refers to the steel of a wok and the edge of a sushi knife," he explained.

OK. I look forward to a restaurant called "Grate" (referring to the grill) and another called "Trap" (referring to the grease trap) and maybe one called "Spatula." How about "Microwave"? No, that won't do.

Steel Restaurant and Lounge (950 W. Peachtree St., Suite 255, 404-477-6111) is located in the glitzy condo high-rise Plaza Midtown. It's the latest in what seems to be a new trend: Pan-Asian restaurants like Rain and Chinese Buddha.

The name is more immediately suggestive to me of sleek design and mirrored surfaces. This latest of the Johnson Studio's work does aim for a Zen effect but is kind of cozy, too. The bar is separated from the dining room by a long, curved "rain curtain." There's a hardwood floor, postmodern takes on Chinese lanterns, glossy red tabletops and lighting moody enough to make reading the menu difficult. There's a sushi bar and a private dining room with a wall of racked wine. There's special seating called the "wasabi booth" in just the right shade of unnatural green. How one rates being seated there, I have no idea.

The original restaurant in Dallas – Atlanta's is the only clone – has won numerous awards from the local press, including "sexiest restaurant" from D magazine. Esquire called it the "best new restaurant bar" in the United States in 2001. The Dallas Morning News named it among the top 10 restaurants in the city.

I'll have to check this out with our former food editor, Bill Addison, who is now a critic at the Morning News. The menu at the Atlanta restaurant is an abbreviated rendering of the Dallas one, and the food itself, while not bad, is a far cry from the city's best of anything.

It's tempting to rant about authenticity. Why go to a restaurant like this for Vietnamese food when you can head out to Buford Highway and get the real thing for a lot less money? I'll refrain from a wholehearted rant, but I will warn you: If you're accustomed to eating in real-live Asian restaurants, you're going to find the food here compromised.

For example, I ordered "Korean beef" for my entree. It features grilled tenderloin marinated in "Korean spices," served with "house-made kim chee" and vegetable pancakes. The kim chee was tasty enough but far less fiery than the usual. The beef was also tasty but so marinated it was overtenderized, and it, too, wouldn't hold up flavor-wise against the grilled-at-your-table bulgogi of Hae Woon Dae or Chosun OK. The vegetable pancake needs immense work. It had clearly been made well in advance and was served at virtual room temperature. I've made meals out of these and, believe me, Steel's would embarrass most Korean chefs.

On the other hand, an entree of Chinese-style salt-and-pepper shrimp, scallops and calamari, spiked with garlic, was about as good as any I've ever had. It featured huge shrimp with unusually good flavor. It's getting rare to encounter a shrimp that actually tastes like shrimp in our town.

An appetizer of squid and black-mushroom salad, on the sushi menu, was also toothily terrific. Shrimp and pork "dim sum dumplings," another starter, surprised us with their ravioli-like appearance. But the dumplings were al dente, tasted like their ingredients instead of mystery meat, and here and there zapped the palate with a bit of hot chilies. On the other hand, a salmon-skin roll was made with gooey rice and tepid salmon skin overpowered by other ingredients.

Dessert was innocuous: "brandied fruit Foster" – sauteed bananas, strawberries and pineapple in brown sugar and hot brandy with vanilla ice cream. We thought they were going to set it on fire tableside like in the good old days, but they didn't. I'm not sure how this dish got on a Pan-Asian menu. Was the chef at Brennan's in New Orleans, where bananas Foster was invented, Asian?

Here and there

I paid a return visit to Sabroso Mexicano on Moreland Avenue in Little Five Points last week. I'd read a few reports here and there that the former tapas restaurant had improved.

Nope. I ordered an interesting entree – sliced flank steak marinated in coffee and balsamic vinegar. Despite overcooking, it wasn't bad, at least not compared to the side of "garlicky green beans." They were literally inedible, coated in oil that tasted spoiled.

Wayne did something I haven't seen him do in many weeks. He didn't polish the plate. He left half his chicken enchiladas uneaten. He did, however, polish off his "Gila Monster" margarita.

Chips and a salsa trio were good enough. And we enjoyed watching a drag queen strut around. A poster said there was some kind of show on Sundays. I guess we were too late or too early to see it. Or maybe there's a good reason Front Page News, next door, was crowded and Sabroso nearly empty. ...

My friend Rose and I lunched at Com, the Vietnamese grill on Buford Highway, which I hadn't visited in many months. The food is still delicious. We shared a flawless salad made with beef and papaya, and we both ordered rice noodle (bun) dishes with grape-leaf-wrapped lamb for Rose and shrimp on sugarcane skewers for me.

Among Com's charms is its staff – young men and women with especially cool, funny personalities. ...

My friend Jeff and I visited Pura Vida in Poncey-Highland to try out the lunch it's now serving Saturday and Sunday. We were surprised to be handed the usual dinner menu. But we ate well. I especially liked the almost fluffy yuca croquettes served with honey. A special of duck with black beans was also notable.



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