Restaurant Review - More is more

Over-the-top Rainwater an eclectic, edgy, oddly comforting destination

Rainwater caught my eye long before the food tickled my fancy. Is Dr. Mackle going to mix metaphors here? You bet. But so do the restaurant's chefs and proprietors.

Housed in a Mediterranean-style villa set down on an East Alpharetta boulevard, Rainwater offers semi-formal American cuisine variously influenced by New Southern recipes, fusionary concepts and mildly modernist tendencies. (Southern-fried mahi mahi, yes; raw monkfish liver, no.) Happily enough, given the suburban office-park/Ga. Highway 400 audience at which the restaurant is aimed, Chef Todd Annis' stylistic tricks and experimental tweaks pay off more often than not. Annis formerly served as executive chef at Araxi and Carbo's Cafe. He began his professional career on the line at Bistango and has since taught regional cooking at the Art Institute of Atlanta.

Designer Buddy McDowell's colorful, highly eclectic interior decor follows somewhat the same frisky, half-of-everything path, and with similar results. More on that below.

The food's the thing. But so is the image. Both visits began with comfortably offbeat soups from the fall menu ($6). Wild mushrooms and tenderloin tips, as savory and lush as a foie gras stew, is garnished with a pimento cheese-smeared crouton and served in a hubcap-size bowl. Precariously perched on the bowl's rim, a double dildo-shaped breadstick gives the sexy presentation visual punch. Overall, the conception has a wild and crazy kind of individuality — like Jerry Seinfeld well into his second Alice B. Toklas brownie, trying to top himself and going strong.

Days later, cream of beet soup garnished with soft goat cheese and fresh lump crab meat (and minus the suggestive breadstick) came highly recommended by server Matthew B. The young man's enthusiasm was right on target. Pureed to the consistency of applesauce, the crimson soup contrasts familiar flavors with surprise accents for a balanced payoff.

That said, the autumn signature chowder, Carolina sweet potato and leeks with shrimp, celery, onions and sherry, is as bland and useless as any slow-lane student's initial essay. At $7, it is shockingly overpriced as well.

Hanger steak salad is a ring-ding combination, however. The modest lunch entree or shareable appetizer incorporates three distinct elements. The base is a small mound of chopped ingredients (lettuce, avocado, cheddar cheese, hard-boiled egg, bacon and scallions bound with a honey-mustard dressing). Then comes a surrounding battlement of sliced flank steak and a dome of Gorgonzola cheese, fresh tomatoes and tobacco onion rings ($12). Chef Annis refers to such arrangements as "stacking flavors." Works for me. Despite a multiplicity of potentially discordant notes — sweet mustard, aromatic blue cheese, fried onions, raw onions — the mixture stacks up admirably and is worth a trip across town.

Yeah, but your brother-in-law requires something a little less complicated? Render unto him the Caesar, a neat cylinder of lightly dressed romaine leaves bound with a crouton ring and topped with shaved Grana Padonna Italian cheese ($8).

Or you could move the dude up to the sauteed lump crab cake, a white-dynamite lunch plate or dinner appetizer ($14, $13). Composed of sweet white meat that's lightly bound and heated just through, the cake is topped with roast corn tapenade, avocado aioli and chopped red peppers, and accompanied by dressed field greens and crunchy, Chinese-style dry noodles. It's at once classic and kicky.

Southern-fried mahi mahi atop a heart-stopping mound of bacon-and-cheese-spiked mashed potatoes is witty to boot. The fish, enclosed in a thin, peppery crust, is as juicy as roast chicken with gravy. Sweet onion tartar sauce and stewed red and yellow tomatoes with okra highlight the plate's Dixie derivation ($24). Rack of lamb with a peanut-pesto crust, red zinfandel jus and oven-dried tomato — yee-haw — lost points due to a highly oversalted sidekick, spinach risotto laced with wheat berries ($25). The meat itself was delicate and delectable.

I tried one dessert and quit. Apple beignets, promoted by two servers (though not our Matthew) as comparable to the French Market beignets of New Orleans, had the leaden, greasy consistency of overcooked hushpuppies. A scoop of oatmeal-raisin crunch ice cream lightened the load by only a little ($7). Other choices — creme brûlee trio, chocolate ganache torte, chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce — all sound like yesterday's news. Why bother?

Owner Andrew Fotos' 22,000-square-foot, 500-seat palazzo features a two-story central hall, several large and small dining rooms, a wine room, a cigar room and a bar. Customers' wine lockers form a wall just beyond the hosts' stand, a monumental staircase and an elevator. The edifice is grand and imposing in the manner of a for-profit country club. Glass decorations alone include grape-pattern etched door panels, modern art glass vases, a crackled glass wall set off by a polished wood Phi shape (for Fotos) and numerous blue chandeliers with raindrop-shaped shades. Wrought iron sconces, '90s-style freeform banquettes, gauze curtains, oversize mirrors, soft-focus landscape paintings (some decent, others by-the-numbers), brick and stucco, glazed tiles and glass sinks — the melange is characterized by the restaurant's publicist as "a striking mix of traditional and eclectic." An understatement. Think Villa Christina or Chateau Elan on a smaller budget.

Like the food and willing, helpful service, the collection of wildly discordant images creates a mood. Sometimes, more really is more. As a dinner destination, or a spur-of-the-moment lunch choice, Rainwater is a fine addition to the far Northside's very short list of New Americans. Go. See for yourself.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or leave a voice mail at 404-614-2514.??