Caribbean dreams at Cafe Circa and Entice-A

Serving a version of island cuisine Atlanta

When I was a high school student in lily-white Sandy Springs, I often felt like I was suffocating in the enforced conformity of suburbia. Segregation was still around but I regularly invaded African-American culture to escape my boring world. I remember taking dates to La Carousel Lounge next to Paschal's Restaurant. It was the city's jazz mecca. Of course, I was too young to enter the lounge but the manager let me sit on the steps to listen to the music. And we're talking performances by some of the biggest names in jazz and R&B. I was lucky.

Despite desegregation and assimilation, black Americans do retain a relatively discrete culture in some respects — enough so that even a place like the new Entice-A (239 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-607-0101, www.enticea.com) has prompted white friends to question whether they'd be comfortable there. I've heard the same question about two-year-old Café Circa (464 Edgewood Ave., 404-477-0008, www.cafecircaatl.com). I find the extent of this concern weird.

I think the anxiety relates to the fact that Café Circa and Entice-A are club scenes that feature food. As such, they can be raucous at times. But the food is good! The better dining is at Café Circa, which recently hired Hopeton Hibbert to take over the kitchen. Hibbert was most recently chef at the very French Atmosphere and, before that, at Eclipse di Luna. That should give you an idea of his talent. He was equally comfortable cooking creative Latin tapas and classic French dishes.

Hibbert has introduced some new items and apparently tweaked others. The menu here is strongly influenced by Caribbean cooking, especially Jamaican. A fairly pure example of the latter is a small plate of piquant ackee and salt fish, usually called "Jamaica's national dish," made with salt cod and ackee fruit, along with poblano peppers to give it a considerable kick.

Another starter is an empanada-like riff on flaky Jamaican patties, stuffed with lemon-marinated chicken and Manchego cheese, carrots and cilantro. A habañero tomato sauce shoots up the heat index.

I was anxious to try the Jamaican braised oxtails, but the kitchen was out, so I settled for the huge jerk pork chop. I found this dish's seasoning magical. When you first bite into it, you get a light, slightly sweet taste of orange. Then, as you chew, releasing the flavor of the moist chop, you suddenly get a hit of heat. And every bite is like this. I should say the jerk seasonings are not as strong as I've usually had, but worked well with the orange-thyme honey.

Wayne's entrée of pan-roasted salmon was less satisfying to me. I'm not sure if the menu's description was accurate since it said that the fish has a sweet chili glaze and is served with sautéed escarole. The glaze was definitely there, but the escarole, which has a bitterness that could balance the sweetness, was not there or at least not in abundance. Instead, there seemed to be a gingery cluster of sliced vegetables.

Dessert was Triple Chocolate Love, featuring ginger-chocolate cake with Grand Marnier-chocolate mousse and cocoa whipped cream. We definitely felt loved.

Speaking of love, service was excellent on the rainy Sunday night we visited.

I paid two visits to the sleekly decorated Entice-A, both alone. This new spot where Peking Dragon was located is confusing but totally likeable. It calls itself an "ultra-lounge," but it also seems to be a sports bar. Half a dozen screens were blaring a game when I was there the first evening. My second visit was on a Tuesday night, about 8 p.m., and it was all music. The screens were shut down.

The restaurant is small plates only, prepared by Michelle Rouse, one of the restaurant's owners. When I sat down, the server told me the food was Caribbean. I looked over the menu and only about half of it looked Caribbean. But, whatever, I ordered red snapper escovitch with fried dumplings, flatbread with jerk chicken and zucchini-Parmesan pancakes.

The escovitch was especially good — vinegary with lots of red, gold and green bell peppers. But what was missing was the heat typical of this Jamaican dish. It was not the least bit spicy. The flatbread was likewise overall appealing, although it was too limp to pick up with the hands. That's probably because a layer of avocado was spread over the bread. There was also a light coating of melted sharp cheese. The diced chicken was good, but it did not even remotely taste of jerk seasonings.

I mentioned to the server that I found the two dishes oddly tame for their Jamaican description. She quickly explained that the spices were intentionally muted — "It's Caribbean-inspired." — because customers seemed to prefer it that way.

The three pancakes I ordered were also full of flavor but were gooey, rather than the promised crispy.

In my second visit, I ordered short ribs braised in ale over a strangely spiced rice and sweet-pepper shrimp and cheese grits. Oddly, the latter was the spiciest dish I tasted at Entice-A, despite the "sweet" description. I also sampled chocolate-banana-bread pudding with rum sauce. Yummy, but I honestly did not encounter any flavor of bananas.

My guess is that chef Rouse is tinkering with the menu, since the restaurant is still new. But, please, turn up the heat! Scorch the mouths of white people!


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Spider for Caribbean dreams at Cafe Circa and Entice-A