First Look: Lamplighter

Dining out is spooky these days. I walk into one empty or near-empty restaurant after another. If I comment on how lax business seems to be, I'm usually chastised with a superstitious reply.

"Shhhh. Don't say there's a recession, or people will start to think there really is one and they'll stop going to restaurants" is a typical response.

"But many people have already stopped going," I reply.


I went through this back in the mid-'80s when I was editing a magazine in Houston. The economy there completely collapsed and only two kinds of restaurants seemed to do well – really cheap ones and really expensive ones. Houston, of course, has a large population of wealthy oil peeps who were unaffected by the downturn then. The rest of us collected unemployment, dined in taquerias and paid with coins salvaged from our car seats. Many restaurants went belly-up or managed to barely stay alive through various marketing tricks.

For now, we should be grateful for places like Lamplighter (280 Connally St., 404-835-7167), whose chef, Carmen Cappello, has created an affordable bistro-style café with great food. The Memorial Drive area is becoming a popular location for new restaurants, but there's nothing of comparable quality to compete with Lamplighter so far.

Cappello is best known for his wonderfully kinky food at Mix and his unusual take on Southern food at Sweet Lowdown. Neither restaurant still exists in its original manifestation. This space formerly was called the Lamplighter Café, which closed after a brief life.

Working against Lamplighter is its location. It's hidden on very short Connally Street, between Memorial Drive and MLK Jr. Drive in Grant Park. It's virtually unnoticeable from either of the main streets and, honestly, even when its open, it looks closed, because the lighting is so dim.

The interior has been made more comfortable but it's still pretty rustic, with folding wood chairs and rather rickety tables. The kitchen is open and you can eat at a bar fronting it, if you like. Preferred seating on these fall nights is on the patio, though.

Cappello is living up to his reputation by delivering with a menu that changes from day to day. I've dined here twice and had very good meals.

Generally, I've found entrees better than starters, which is unusual for a new restaurant. So far, my favorite starter has been an earthy sweet potato soup, made with chicken stock and a bit of cream, garnished with croutons, some goat cheese and parsley – perfect seasonal fare. I've also liked the butter bean hummus, drizzled with olive oil and served with toasted naan.

A salad of tomatoes and goat cheese with croutons and "basic dressing" included too many red onions for my taste but Wayne inhaled the dish. We've also ordered the antipasti plate of coppa, Sicilian tuna, Italian olive salad and guanciale. It was not as appealing to me as the rest of the starters, since it doesn't involve Cappello's cooking.

Entrees, all under $15, have been classic Cappello, with unexpected turns here and there. My favorite so far has been juicy, grilled chicken in a rather thin but flavorful mole over a stew of hominy, pigeon peas and pinto beans. The chicken was topped with chopped tomatoes and avocado. It was served with a little pitcher of guajillo oil to turn up the heat, but I still found it a bit milder than I typically like a mole to be. If you find it on the menu, please do not order it expecting a typical mole dish. It's definitely tweaked Cappello-style, accenting bold flavors of various ingredients rather than the mole itself.

Brisket steak, grilled medium rare and served with a cake made of grits was a hearty bargain at $14. I've also liked sliced rare duck over jasmine rice with zucchini in a Thai-style, coconut-milk curry. Our server, without questioning by me, volunteered when I ordered it that it was "not too spicy." I got the same description of the chicken mole from another server.

I'm not sure why Cappello is so reserved with chiles, but I was glad to find at least two slender ones in my duck curry, even if they'd not been cut to impart their flavor with any intensity. Still, the dish – from the creamy sauce to the duck breast – was luscious.

Maybe my favorite entree after the chicken mole was Wayne's dish of "pan fried calamari and shrimp." This certainly turned out to be nothing like we expected. It was lots of the seafood served in a sauce pan with a spicy, garlicky, basil-spiked broth that demanded eating like soup.

Desserts have been homey conclusions. Bread pudding was unexpectedly spiked with lemon curd. Cinnamon-sour cream cake, hot out of the oven and piled with whipped cream, was like fluffy pound cake with a slightly crispy crust.

Lamplighter, which has a full bar, is definitely worth a trip whenever you are in the city. Grant Parkers are bound to quickly get addicted.

Joe Dale's Redux

We lunched at Zuffy's Place (1860 Corporate Blvd., 404-343-1171) last week. This is the reincarnation of Fuzzy's Place, which featured a menu of the late Joe Dale's Cajun cooking. I'm loath to criticize the heir to such an institution. It has the same great staff and, like Fuzzy's, promises to be a boon to local bands. By all means, get drunk and rock out there.

But, oy, the food! I ordered jambalaya and honestly could not eat more than half of it and not because the portion was so large. I found it absolutely repulsive. Its chicken had been cooked in enough garlic to slay Transylvania's entire vampire population. The Andouille sausage was like slightly spicy bologna. And the rice was cooked in sauce until it had the texture of risotto-like baby food.

Wayne ordered a decent hamburger with blue cheese and the popular "Joe Dale's special salad," made with iceberg lettuce, tasteless canned black and green olives and American, Swiss and parmesan cheese with a mayo-ish dressing. It will make you yearn for canned pears topped with shredded American cheese.

And it ain't that cheap. I do not get it.

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