Neighborhood noshing

Visits to Isabella's Cafe and Sun in My Belly

I'm confused. Yeah, I know that's nothing new. Here's why: The recession's silver lining, by many foodies' agreement, is the move away from theme park restaurants — gigantic, operatic spaces with gigantic prices and libretto-like menus.

Many of those places are heading down the drain, in a vortex of coupons and red ink. Not exactly replacing them, but certainly taking up the slack is a new wave of neighborhood, small-scale restaurants. Ideally, these are chef-driven. But — here's the point of confusion — a chef-driven restaurant is only as good as its chef and if a mediocre chef is also the restaurant's owner ... well, you get the point.

At the same time, though, some neighborhood restaurants produce such a pleasant vibe that mediocrity doesn't taste so bad, particularly at a lower price.

I visited two such restaurants this week within a mile of each other. Both are relatively small, independent restaurants with loyal fans — especially the older of the two, Sun in My Belly (2161 College Ave., 404-370-1088). The recently opened Isabella's Café (910 W. College Ave., Decatur, 404-373-7177) has also been producing raves on Yelp and a few foodie blogs.

I was most interested in Isabella's Café because I heard the owner-chef, Wambui Maina, is from Kenya. I met her during my second visit. "She is," as Wayne said with the intended irony that will become clear momentarily, "unbelievably sweet." Wambui actually grew up in New Orleans and her background is in finance. She drew a square in the air and said, "Yes, I lived in a box for a long time." Sick of her field, she woke up one day and decided to open Isabella's.

The restaurant is fairly large, in one of the old buildings of the type that nearby Wahoo! Grill occupies. It's a pleasant space with a bar in the rear, lots of cool photography by Marty Maxwell on the walls, along with stencils of what I took to be mandalas of some sort. But the server assured me they were meaningless.

Our food ranged from unpleasant to delicious. Let's get the worst out of the way immediately. That would be the turkey meatloaf, a huge slice that was virtually draped with a stiff, tasteless gravy. Honestly, I'm not a big meatloaf fan — it was one of the few things I refused to eat as a child — but this was alarming. It was super dry and had an almost crumbly texture.

The major problem we had with the food was the excess of "Wambui's sweetness." We first encountered the sweetness in Wayne's entrée of Swahili shrimp curry with mango. The curry, served over basmati rice, had at least three times as many mango slices as shrimp. I'm not sure if there was sugar in the sauce or if it was an effect of the mango, but it was way too sweet.

But not as sweet as the spicy Asian orange beef. Interestingly, this is a dish that our city's favorite Chinese chef, Frank Ma, recently used as an example of the sugary fate his native cooking has suffered in its transfer to America. This Sichuan dish is meant to be quite hot and spicy. Although Isabella's menu describes it as "spicy," it is not. The beef was cooked well enough, but the sweetness of the sauce was almost unbearable to me. Interestingly, instead of orange rind, the kitchen garnished the dish with a few tastes of orange fruit.

The best entrée was probably the Cajun shrimp and andouille sausage. It didn't approach the sweetness of the other dishes. It did, however, depart from the classic. It was in the form of an Alfredo sauce served over pasta. Wayne was happy because more shrimp and less sugar were used.

Our best tastes were side dishes, especially the black beans seasoned with maple syrup and chipotle. (It's available as an entrée.) We also liked the Spanish white beans with sun-dried tomatoes. Unlike everyone else, I wasn't crazy about the tater tots made from sweet potatoes, but I can see their addictive potential. Samosas, Thai chicken wings and fried "cheesy Buffalo chicken balls" were all snacklicious. And a plate of hummus and olive tapenade was primo. Of two desserts, I most liked the lemon-glazed, vanilla-cardamom pound cake, A hummingbird cake completely slathered with cream cheese icing took second place.

I hope Isabella's will improve, but, even if it remains the same, it's a great place to hang out, grab a beer and snack.

My experience with Sun in My Belly was limited to breakfast. I was very happy with my omelette of spinach, red peppers, prosciutto and cheddar. And I loved my side dish of couscous turned red by the addition of chopped beets, then garnished with goat's cheese. And the café serves great coffee.

Most of the food is uncomplicated and maybe a bit dated. The menu is mainly sandwiches, most of them old familiars. In a time of experimental sliders and exotic sandwiches at Super Pan, some updating is in order. The same is true of breakfast, although eliminating the honey-glazed bacon might enrage the café's many fans.

The ambiance is laid-back, kind of early Flying Biscuit, with silhouette portraits decorating the walls.

This restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch only. The owners also operate a catering company and the café at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

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