First Look: Painted Table

Plus, visits to Urban Cannibals and Havana

It's obviously nuts to open a fine-dining restaurant these days. If you want to succeed, you need to be inexpensive and occupy relatively cheap real estate. It's best if you have a chef with a following, and even then – like the immortal burlesque advice given Gypsy Rose Lee – "You gotta get a gimmick."

Three dining venues that fulfill most of these criteria have recently opened: Painted Table Café (465 Boulevard, 404-622-4353), Urban Cannibals Bodega + Bites (477 Flat Shoals Ave., 404-230-9865) and Havana Restaurant (3979 Buford Highway, 404-633-7549).

Of the three, Painted Table provides the most full service, meaning you don't order your food at a counter. But I warn you, the service here – while courteous and friendly – was slow during both our visits, especially the first. In neither case were there a lot of other people in the restaurant.

That aside, the place is a charmer. It's in the location of the short-lived Zocalo Taqueria and has been completely remodeled to embody all the concepts of feng shui, the ancient Chinese system of managing space. Look on the floor in front of the bar and you'll see a series of red circles containing Chinese symbols wishing you love, happiness and other good stuff. Cool art, including some photos by Kate Crosby, decorate the walls. The only glitch: The rear of the restaurant is undecorated and – positive flow of energy or not – its aesthetics seem quite at odds with the rest of the space.

The restaurant has been open a few weeks and was still ironing out kinks during my two visits. For example, it originally planned only to open for breakfast and lunch. Now it opens at lunchtime, and dinner has been added weekdays – but you can order breakfast anytime. The dinner menu is the same as the original breakfast-lunch menu. Got that?

Literally half the menu is breakfast food – everything from omelets and scramblers to french toast and big biscuits, along with the usual side dishes of meats. There are plenty of vegetarian options.

I've sampled one dish from the breakfast section, shrimp and grits. It's a healthy portion, to say the least, with 8 ounces of jumbo tiger shrimp, pancetta, roasted bell peppers, onion and lots of mushrooms, all coated in a red gravy that registers as peculiar on the first taste, but grew on me.

The rest of the menu is mainly sandwiches, including burgers, and salads. Wayne ordered the Black 'n' Blue burger – a seasoned, blackened patty with peppercorn bacon and blue cheese. He got a side of she-crab soup, velvety thick with crab meat. I'm never completely happy with this dish unless I detect plenty of crab roe, but it's been a long time since I've seen that anywhere, including here. Painted Table's is nonetheless better than average.

On our second visit, Wayne ordered a special that evening – pecan-crusted panga, a white fish with the peculiar distinction of changing sex throughout its life cycle. I've never eaten this fish before and found it tasty. The restaurant served it over basmati rice with asparagus and sautéed spinach. I ordered the fried green tomato sandwich on sourdough bread with peppercorn bacon, lettuce, horseradish aioli and crumbled goat cheese. It was served open-face and I could find no way to assemble a true sandwich from its four huge tomato slices. Our server said it is ordinarily served assembled.

The sandwich's flavors were great. They also point to what seems to be a favorite flavor of the owner/chef: sour. Fried green tomatoes are featured in at least three dishes and both a chili and a quinoa soup had an identical sour flavor that turned out to be tomatillos. We also tried an interesting butternut squash soup – absent any sourness, but just as unusual, an effect the chef told us arose from the time he lived in Thailand.

Painted Table has no desserts and serves no alcohol now, but should begin serving both next month.

Meanwhile, Calavino Donati, who made herself known nearly 10 years ago with the since-closed Roman Lily Café, has opened a deli in East Atlanta Village, Urban Cannibals Bodega + Bites, with her singer/spouse Doria Roberts. A daily changing menu of sandwiches is offered, and customers can order dinner for pick-up by reservation only. The menu is posted daily on Facebook and Twitter.

I've only tried lunch and was very happy with a Cuban roll stuffed with roasted pork, piquillos and an evocative blend of horseradish and Granny Smith apples. There are vegetarian options and, in fact, the store is a pick-up location for subscribers to its weekly CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes. Those are boxes filled with local produce and goodies thrown in by Calavino.

Doria, besides singing, is a hyperactive community activist who recently was a guest at the White House, along with other artists. She hopes to make Urban Cannibals a means of contact with various activist organizations.

It's a cool place with great promise. I'll say more in a later column.

Every foodie fan of the old Havana Sandwich Shop, which burned a few years ago, is in ecstatic throes with the opening of Havana Restaurant. It has been opened by Debbie Benedit and her son Eddie Benedit, wife and son of the sandwich shop's original owner, the late Eddie Sr.

The menu is largely identical to the sandwich shop's. In fact, Mrs. Benedit has added ropa vieja back to the menu, which was removed decades ago because it didn't sell well. I remember when the restaurant opened in 1976. There was no other Cuban food in the city that I recall and only a few places ever came close to home-style cooking of the same quality.

My one visit, for the ropa vieja and black beans and rice, was well worth the drive, just a few miles beyond the original location.