Grazing: Something old, something new

Huey's gets Nesbit, Madras Cafe gets mediocre

Claudia Nesbit wasn't too happy when, a few months ago, she went to work at Virginia's, whose menu she had transformed from something grim to something special, and was told the restaurant would be closing in two days.

The loss of that quirky, handcrafted beauty in the Stove Works complex on Krog Street produced a small avalanche of bitter e-mail. Just when the food finally caught up with the gorgeous ambience, Virginia's owners pulled the plug without warning or explanation.

Now, Nesbit has landed at yet another odd location: 20-year-old Huey's (1816 Peachtree Road, 404-873-2037). I hadn't set foot in this tiny cafe in years before I visited last week. I admit that with the exception of a few dishes, like a good etouffee, I don't have a strong taste for New Orleans cooking, and Huey's has never been much good to me for anything more than a beignet and coffee. Sunday brunch did become a welcome alternative to neighboring R. Thomas' when it began specializing in food that tastes like Hawaiian poi.

Huey's owners have given Nesbit a completely free hand and beignets are the only sign of New Orleans cooking on the menu now. About a month after the change, I watched a number of apparent regulars balk upon seeing the new, more expensive menu, but I didn't see anyone leave. The restaurant, whose principal seating is actually on a patio (where live jazz was performed the night of my visit), is cozy, almost retro. The staff is super-attentive and our server Stephanie is herewith declared Waitron of the Week and Perky Persona of the Month.

Nesbit spent four years as sous chef at Bacchanalia and that influence is powerful in the Atlanta native's New Southern cooking. You'll recognize some dishes from Virginia's that are re-interpreted from Bacchanalia, like a crab fritter with mango salsa. Wayne started with a risotto croquette served with sauteed wild mushrooms — you see a lot of these here — and a beurre blanc sauce. I ordered the day's soup, an intense butternut squash puree with pumpkin seed oil and a few micro greens.

For an entree, Wayne picked sauteed halibut with snow peas and a generous portion of pricey morel mushrooms that I wanted to steal from his plate. Morels, which grow wild all over the northern USA, have dense flavor and a spongy texture that picks up sauces, like the beurre blanc on the halibut. Morels will be coming into full season in a few weeks. I'd love to see a chef in town develop a special menu around them.

For my own entree, I selected a special featuring five burnished scallops — "They're huge! Huge, I tell you," Stephanie assured me — served over spinach puree with, yep, more mushrooms. This time they were luscious oysters. One complaint about this dish: The spinach puree was so watery it barely clung to the scallops.

We ordered the two desserts available besides the beignets. A Valhrona-style chocolate cake, warmed and melting, was problematic. It had basically collapsed into a pudding-like pool under the weight of some sliced strawberries. We much preferred shortbread with strawberries, whipped cream and vanilla oil.

Nesbit will be revising the lunch and brunch menus here too. Although prices are up, they are still quite reasonable, with most entrees under $20.

Also new again

OK, I'm going to earn the wrath of a few readers who have written me excited e-mails to announce the reopening of Madras Cafe (3029 Briarcliff Road, 440-320-7120). This tiny restaurant was once the city's premier vegetarian Indian cafe and introduced many of us to our first dosai, the big rice-flour crepes cooked crispy or soft and stuffed with savory fillings.

Madras underwent a transformation after the owners opened the larger, more comprehensive Madras Saravana Bhavan in Decatur, which has, by nearly everyone's estimation, become both the city's best South Indian and best overall vegetarian restaurant. After MSB opened, the old Madras shifted its focus and began serving meat as well as vegetarian dishes. Then it closed for some months and now it has re-opened.

The restaurant desperately needs re-decorating. I can live with the zillion weird Windsor chairs at the restaurant's 10 or 12 tables, but the place needs some fresh paint. Dinner at the restaurant was acceptable. Alu Gobi, Wayne's favorite of cauliflower and potatoes cooked with spices, was not comparable to Udipi's, mainly because the vegetables were overcooked and lost in a sauce that was too heavy.

We liked our dosai, however. The traditional mysore dosa was huge and spicy, its crackly texture nice with its filling of soft potatoes, onions, peas and carrots. And some friends from India were quite excited when I told them I'd had an unheard of dosa — one filled with lamb. Although the menu described its crepe as crispy, it was actually soft, but no less tasty.

We also enjoyed an off-the-menu dish we were offered — a very hot chicken curry whose name we could not catch despite asking half a dozen times. It actually tasted better the next day when some tamarind-like notes had grown stronger. I also liked the fiery naan bread topped with garlic and hot chilies.

The huge disappointment was the feature for which the restaurant is most known — its lunchtime all-you-can-eat buffet. Did I go on a bad day? It was exclusively vegetarian, which is fine, but none of the dishes were unusual or better than mediocre. A promising dish of baby eggplants was cooked to mush. Spinach with cheese tasted weirdly sour. Rice was in scalded-tasting clumps. Idly was inedible.

There were only two other people in the restaurant, two young Indian women. I was so disconcerted by the buffet that I asked them if they thought it was any good.

"No," one of them said in that quickly cadenced accent. "It is not good but it is not good to say so."

Oy! Here come da karma.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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