Restaurant Review - Virginia's is for lookers

Colorful Krog Street hideaway stretches the limits of retro-industrial, tropical allure

Only yesterday, Krog Street was notable as Inman Park's rust belt, a shortcut stretch of rutted road lined with shuttered industrial buildings housing only bums, winos, druggies and stray dogs.

What a difference a ton of dollars and a barrel of sweat make — not to mention vision and taste, plus a little bit of luck. Today, Krog is rehabbed, Krog is humming, Krog is kool. Layers of rust have been cut out, plastered over and polished to flat, post-industrial perfection. Pipes have been painted yellow, bricks exposed, signs hung, parking lots paved, plate glass installed and banners raised. Couriers and PR people come and go. Neighbors stroll over from new, Erector Set condos on adjacent blocks.

In a word, Krog has been gentrified. It is a mixed-use playground, an intown environment, a workspace without the three-piece suits. It is in line to become the next Little Five Points or Poncey-Highland strip. In the meantime, there's still plenty of parking space, even on weekends.

That's fine because Virginia's, a garden of delights hidden inside a project called the Stove Works, is a primo place to hang out with the crowd. Especially on the patio, where a quirky fantasy combining fish pool, trellises and tropical plants approximates the ambience of Coral Gables or Capri.

Protected by a half-invisible metal roof far overhead, with banana plants, bamboo, lilies, goldfish and mosaic-topped tables helping create a cool, relaxing haven, the indoor-outdoor space is Prozac for the soul without the distressing side effects. A bubbling fountain and hip young servers who move silently and fairly quickly add value to the package.

My impression is that women feel safe here and can dine alone. During the nights I spent on Virginia's patio, loving couples of several persuasions traded morsels of food and held hands naturally, without anybody making a big deal of it.

Beyond the patio, inside a set of glass doors, there's also an air-conditioned bar with a large, somewhat more formal dining room beyond that. Here, the riverboat-bordello decor is equally quirky — at least for Inman Park — a fantasy of velvet and ropes, enveloping booths, cocktail tables, odd light fixtures and liquor bottles displayed like diamonds at Tiffany's. Relentless pop-rock music is piped into these precincts, another factor that persuaded me to eat outside on both visits.

Eat. Dine. Food. Yes, Virginia, there's a downside to dining at Virginia's. With a few exceptions, the cuisine strikes me as a fair approximation of hotel cooking — a Marriott restaurant, say, or a mid-range Hilton garden grill. We're not talking bad food, mind you, just formularized semi-eclecticism, perhaps the result of bored cooks reproducing recipes that we've all experienced a thousand times before.

Virginia's has been open in the Stove Works for about two years, with a six-year stint on Virginia Street, north of Ponce de Leon Avenue, before that. Presumably the owners know what they can sell successfully and stick to the formula. No doubt there are fans of every bite the kitchen produces. Most dishes are prettily presented. Still, I wish it were all prepared and seasoned with more thought and tasted better.

So let's start with the most successful item I tried, an entree special: sauteed snapper topped with sauteed shrimp and shrimp sauce on large-grain, Israeli-style couscous ($20). The large slice of fish was sweet, fresh and cooked just enough. The lightly crusted shrimp provided contrast and flavor, as did the sauce. A salad of mixed field greens tossed with wasabi-rice wine vinaigrette, topped with shrimp toast and surrounded by fried oysters was nearly as successful ($8). We could detect not a trace of wasabi flavor in the dressing, however, and the shrimp toast might have been fresher. Still, these dishes compare well to, say, the output of the go-go-go Food Studio, albeit with fewer pretensions and served in a cozier, less high-powered, but similar setting.

Nothing remotely eclectic — or fun to report — about Virginia's version of Tournedos Henry IV: beef tenderloin medallions on Burgundy sauce topped with béarnaise-filled artichoke bottoms and served with French beans and duchess potatoes on the side ($22). Or with a quartet of lamb chops with jelly-like rosemary sauce, whipped potatoes and grilled asparagus spears ($18). In both cases, the meat was tender and moderately flavorful, the sauces tasted as if spooned directly from the bottle and warmed, the potatoes were competently prepared and tasty. The tough, almost inedible beans made the asparagus seem delectable by comparison.

Chicken saté with peanut sauce — hunks of marinated, skewered and grilled white meat topped with thick, dark brown sauce — looked and tasted like the Southern Living version of what's actually a simple-to-prepare South Asian dish ($7). Yawn. Marriott chefs do this kind of appetizer in their sleep.

A chocolate profiterole — a breast-shaped pastry puff filled with whipped cream and ice cream and covered with chocolate sauce — was moderately satisfying and not too large or rich ($4.50). But a slice of cherry tart tasted as if it had spent a little too much time in the icebox ($4.50). I wondered if perhaps the tart arrived on the same truck as the sauces.

They saved the corker for the end, though. A cup of coffee described by the server as "being brewed right now" arrived not hot, not ice cold, but at the temperature of tap water.

Oh bummer, we laughed. Brewed when, we wondered. The servers soon made it sort of right, managing to locate a cup of properly hot, freshly brewed coffee — but then charging for it, as if no mistake had been made ($1.25).

Well, hey, there's a good wine list. You might just bring a book or newspaper and try a bowl of soup. Or chance the snapper special. In any case, the alluring patio at Virginia's is well worth your time.

Contact Elliott Mackle at 404-614-2514 or elkcam1@hotmail.com??