First Look: Straits

Ludacris' Asian fusion in Midtown

Remember Spice? I can't think of another Atlanta restaurant that came so close to literalizing the notion of food porn. The billboard in the parking lot opposite the restaurant long featured a smooth female torso topped by a phallic, red chili pepper. The interior featured more anatomy photos and the crowd was all about anatomy too. Hot, hot, hot.

Unfortunately, like a lot of sex, the food at Spice was a better concept than experience. It was beautifully complicated, even sexy, but once you had it in your mouth, everything went limp. The restaurant experimented with other menus and chefs, including three of Atlanta's most talented, but the beautiful people and their cash had moved on.

Eventually the restaurant closed and Atlanta rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges bought the building, expecting to play only the role of landlord. Then, at a charity event, he met Chris Yeo, owner of three California restaurants called Straits. The name refers to the Straits of Malacca, a waterway between Malaysia and Singapore. Yeo's restaurants feature a fusion cuisine calling on the area's Thai, Chinese, Indonesian, Malay and Nonya styles.

Ludacris and Yeo formed a partnership and, about a year later, have opened the Atlanta Straits (793 Juniper St., 404-877-1283). The rumor is that they spent about $1 million for the Johnson Studio to redesign the space in red and chocolate colors. Honestly, I can't say the redesign is an improvement. The original interior was dark and sexy. Then it was lightened up and turned cheerful. Now it's sort of sultry and chilly at the same time. You know, like the person who seduces you and then refuses to do what you want.

Comparisons between Straits and the new Spice Market, also an Asian-fusion restaurant from a celebrated chef (Jean-Georges Vongerichten), are going to be inevitable. I have to say the interior of Spice Market, inside the W on 14th Street, is far more glamorous, despite the menu's street-food inspiration. Food-wise, I'm tempted to call them a draw. I do wish Straits would produce a tasting menu, like Spice Market does. The food, which has been given some Southern notes here and there, is novel enough that one wants a nibble of everything.

My only serious complaint pertains to the food's serving. Our server explained that the food is served family-style. That means you're meant to share plates. But don't make the mistake of thinking that means the servings are particularly large. More annoying is that the food does not arrive in any particular order, as is the case at most Chinese restaurants. So we ended up eating a salad and a side dish before our entree arrived. Then we were still hungry and ordered another salad. Dessert did come at the end of the meal. You may want to try to specify the order of your dishes or only order one course after the first arrives, if this matters to you.

The food was mainly delicious – surprisingly so. Fusion cuisine has gone from a fascinating novelty to a veritable cliché in the 20-odd years I've been writing this column. But Straits (like Spice Market) really does preserve the spirit of surprise that characterized the best fusion cooking of the '80s.

One example, with a decidedly Southern touch, was chunks of watermelon topped with slices of juicy, marinated skirt steak. A chili-lemongrass vinaigrette was drizzled over the plate with a scattering of mysterious herbs. The wet flavors – sweet, fruity, slightly bitter, a bit fiery – really do turn watermelon into something altogether new.

A banana-blossom salad reminded us of the popular Vietnamese papaya salad and, indeed, its vinaigrette drew on flavors from Vietnam. The banana blossoms aren't like the flowers decorating Chiquita Banana's headdress. Instead they are slices of the "boat," the purple outer layer of the banana blossom. Straits tosses them with grilled chicken, Asian pear and herbs. We considered it our favorite dish.

We also ordered a dish that has produced lots of raves from local foodies – "Lady Finger Sambal." I suspect it's appealing because it features a Southern favorite, okra. But, actually, this is a classic Malaysian dish with a spicy, light sauce. The okra was not gooey but, in fact, a few pieces were too tough to chew. Otherwise, it was better than your mama's.

Our one entree was a crispy, roasted Cornish hen, split and served with an excessively sweet sesame sauce and some Sriracha sauce. It came with a bowl of the restaurant's aromatic chicken rice. I'd order the dish again, but urge you to look for some more exotic choices.

We were both still hungry after eating this amount of food and ordered two desserts. Bread pudding featuring roasted pineapple was tasty but Wayne's dish, "Flaming Alaska," was the more interesting. (He instantly renamed it the "Exxon Valdez.") It's a play on Baked Alaska – a turret of toasted meringue encasing mango ice cream, served with a little pot of flaming booze and some fruit.

Service at the new restaurant is friendly and provided by a staff of gorgeous women, many of whom are funny.

I took a few pictures of my food for our blog and the restaurant's manager appeared at the table and asked why I was taking pictures. "I dunno, I just like to," I said.

"You like to, huh? So do you do this everywhere?" she asked.

"Sure, it's fun," I said, lying, because it really is not fun.

"But why?" she demanded.

"In case we get sick," Wayne interrupted. "We'll have photographic evidence."

Frustrated, she finally laughed and shrugged. "OK," she said, "I'll give you my card and you can call me direct if you get sick."

You'd be surprised how many restaurant people act like I'm committing a crime when I take out my camera. Well, I know the quality of my pictures is often criminal, but that's not what they're worried about.

I like Straits, even though its name is wrong for gay Midtown.

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