Food as pleasure at La Pietra Cucina and Eros World Tapas Bar
I've been re-reading Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste, published in France in 1825 when restaurants were first making their appearance there. The book is a series of meditations on what it means to be a "gourmand" in every aspect of one's life. In other words, it's about the celebration of pleasure in relation to food and goes to great lengths to discern the gourmand from the glutton, the educated palate from the pretentious one.
It's a refreshing read, if not taken too literally, in a time when food has become a direct expression of our culture's conflicted values. On the one hand we're all about consumption and efficiency; thus fast food. On the other hand, our Puritanism often shows up in the so-called green movement. Even the farm-to-table fixation takes on an evangelical fanaticism at times.
I visited two restaurants last week that are devoted to food as pleasure, one implicitly and the other explicitly. An example of the first is La Pietra Cucina (1545 Peachtree St., 404-888-8709) in the space formerly occupied by MidCity Cuisine. The explicit example is Eros World Tapas Bar (2160 Monroe Drive, 404-549-2433) in the modernist space abandoned by Pie Bar.
La Pietra Cucina is for the time being occupying only a corner of the MidCity space; the rest of it is undergoing remodeling and will open in mid-October. The executive chef is Atlanta native Bruce Logue, who has an extensive and impressive résumé, including time as sous chef at Babbo, Mario Batali's ultra-popular New York Italian restaurant. He started out here at Tom Coohill's much-missed French restaurant, Ciboulette. Other gigs include Pano's and Paul's, Snake River Grill (Jackson Hole, Wyo.) Vivace Ristorante (Carlsbad, Calif.), Radius and Bricco (Boston).
I've lunched twice at the restaurant. For the present the abbreviated lunch and dinner menus are identical. Among those I've eaten with at La Pietra Cucina is my extremely gourmandish friend Brad Lapin, who lives much of the year in Rome. He was blown away by the place.
The menu is divided into antipasti, pasta primi dishes, secondi entrees and side dishes. Thus far my favorite dish has been the bread gnocchi, completely new to me. Chef Logue dyes the gnocchi black with squid ink and serves it with Thai basil, heirloom tomatoes and shelled mussels. He calls his cuisine both "ingredient-driven" and "progressive Italian." Both show up clearly in this dish with its pure flavors and experimental seasoning.
I was also wowed by a recent special of pasta all'amatriciana – a classic sauce featuring the tender, baconlike guanciale. Logue cures the meat – sliced hog jowls, essentially – on the premises for a month. The guanciale, often replaced with pancetta elsewhere, imparts a richness to an otherwise light, fresh tomato sauce heavy with sweet onions.
Grilled tuna tagliata, Brad's entree, was cooked a bit beyond the medium-rare he ordered but any complaint about that was instantly annihilated with the first taste. It was served with a sweet Vidalia-onion caponata and a bit of tomato sauce. Honestly, I'd call this a standard-setting version of grilled, sliced tuna.
Panini are generous-sized, crispy and fragrant – especially one made with heirloom tomatoes, basil and mozzarella di bufala. My friend Todd ordered one made with pancetta, parmigiano and Dijon mustard.
Of side dishes, I've only tried the Broccolini with toasted garlic and the sweet corn fregola, my favorite. Fregola is a couscouslike pasta and it's a pillowy contrast to slightly crispy white corn.
For dessert, choose the pistachio semifreddo, served with chocolate sauce. A daily gelato is also available.
Service here is terrific, with waiters who know Logue's cooking intimately. The room itself is not especially attractive, but, as I said, it's an interim space and you won't be looking at the walls when the beautiful food arrives at your table.
Meanwhile, Wayne and I paid a visit to the brand-new Eros World Tapas Bar. The name – referring to the Greek god of lust and love – scared me. I was expecting something cheesy. Happily, I was only about 15 percent correct.
We visited on a Saturday night, just a day after it opened, so only a few tables were occupied. The new owners, a pair of Greeks, have improved the appearance of the place dramatically. In its incarnation as Pie Bar there was a stress on the bare-bones architecture, which was understandable but nonetheless made eating there like dining in a circular airport hangar. Cool lighting fixtures and a moody ambiance make the space worthy of its name. The patio made me laugh, with its symmetry worthy of a temple to Eros.
We were a bit taken aback by the incredibly loud '80s disco music that a DJ was playing. And the staff of hot men and women apparently have been ordered to break into dance moves whenever they want. One of the men urgently needs a speaker to climb onto.
I was not expecting good food in a place that is so club-oriented. (There's dancing after 10 p.m.) But I'm dubbing it the city's first gastrodisco. We ordered about seven tapas, all of them inexpensive and all of them twice the portion most restaurants are serving. They were prepared in the open kitchen that backs the bar. The cooks also shake their groove thing while they wield their tongs.
The grilled octopus was, after Kyma's, probably the best version I've encountered in Atlanta. The owners lived in South Africa for a while, according to our server Ashley, so piri-piri sauce shows up in a few tapas. If you like chicken livers, do not miss them here. Velvety smooth, they're cooked in the piquant sauce with onions.
Other dishes we sampled: white anchovies piled over chopped celery, a terrific taste contrast; simple bruschetta with fresh tomatoes; piping-hot globes of fried, creamy goat cheese; grilled lamb chops; and lightly fried shrimp.
The inhibited may find the free-wheeling atmosphere intimidating. People like Wayne, who can lip-synch everyone from Gloria Gaynor to the Black Eyed Peas, will be in heaven. The place is sensuality incarnate. Brillat-Savarin would probably find it over the top but it's great to find a playful venue like this with good, affordable food.