Restaurant Review - The weeds done gone

Wisteria springs up near Carter Center

WisteriaWisteria, the climbing shrub with the pendulous blossoms, is a somewhat more civilized form of kudzu. Both varieties' luscious, lavender-blue-purple flowers are almost beyond compare. Yet give either vine an inch and it will take over a back yard in a weekend. Some folks love these showy plants. Others ruthlessly root them out wherever they appear.

My reaction to Wisteria the restaurant is similarly ambivalent. Chef Jason Hill's best American-fusion dishes are well worth a drive across town. In particular, his pan-seared Lake Victoria perch on whipped potatoes with asparagus spears and charred tomato compote is as tasty and elegant a seafood plate as can be found here. The storefront, the former Babette's Cafe on North Highland Avenue, has been stripped to the rafters, the walls sponged an unusual gold-yellow-brown, the bar turned to face the room, and new furniture and lighting installed. Hill says he and his partners in the venture did most of the work themselves. The restaurant opened Sept. 9.

Wisteria is not perfect. Tobacco smoke from the unenclosed bar can envelop the dining area. On my first visit to the renovated space, when the smell of a truck-stop lounge suddenly hit me, I almost left. (Smoke-eating ventilator, anyone?) Torture-rack chairs, their backs perhaps pitched for weightlifters, can turn ordinary people's spines into mush. (Let's hope they were bought on credit and can be returned.) The less said about greasy, overcooked, over-garnished calamari with wasabe creme fraiche, field greens and Welch's grape jelly-like plum sauce the better ($6.95).

For all that, Wisteria has much to recommend it, including excellent service by a young and willing crew, refreshingly moderate prices — with portions to match — and an extensive list of quarter-bottle wines by the glass. Skip the squid and similarly fussy-sounding dishes, and you could be in business.

The African perch, one plump, meaty fillet per order, has a nutty, buttery flavor that's neither fishy nor bland. Although Hill says some chefs substitute the imported perch for more expensive halibut, I found it closer to tilapia or South Carolina flounder in taste and texture. Besides the creamy Idaho spuds, crunchy asparagus and tomato-onion stew, the fish is set off by basil oil and roasted red pepper coulis ($15.95). I could eat it twice a week.

Though less spectacular than the perch, molasses-rubbed pork tenderloin over sweet potato souffle with a Vidalia onion, apple and walnut relish is another good starting place for Wisteria first-timers. Besides meeting a recognized demand (successful Atlanta restaurants nearly always offer a pork entree), the mild, veal-like meat is comforting and tender in all the right ways ($16.95). Spicy half chicken over bacon-braised collards with corn pudding and mushroom broth bumps the Southern-comfort idea up a couple of hot notches ($14.95). Butternut squash soup topped with chopped apples and Vidalia onion, walnuts and ginger creme fraiche, a subtle special, made a fine starter for the chicken ($4.50).

Entrees I hope to try next time include potato-crusted Atlantic salmon, Charleston-style crab cakes, herb-crusted rack of lamb and the vegetable platter. Plating is generally attractive, with components stacked and arranged for visual impact but staying well this side of towering silliness.

We disagreed on the merits of another special, an entree portion of pappardelle pasta with shredded duck meat, andouille sausage, wilted arugula, Point Reyes blue cheese, walnuts and veal jus ($15.95). As described by the server, the recipe sounded new and fresh, wonderful and delicious-- a real classic. My friend the curmudgeon lapped it up. I couldn't get past two bites. The flavors and textures not only refused to come together, they wouldn't even talk to each other. Likewise, fried green tomatoes, were acceptable enough by themselves. Their garnish, mixed greens with buttermilk dressing, came from another planet. The topping, more Marin County blue cheese, masked the flavor of the tomatoes altogether ($5.95). Chef Hill says he's thinking of dropping the appetizer. Simply substituting the charred tomato-onion compote for the cheese salad would fix it for me.

While we're at it, let's skip the sprinkling of capers on what the menu calls a "classic" Caesar salad and drop the price a dollar or two (meanwhile, it's $5.25). Anchovies, anyone? Not this time.

Heavy-duty, calorie-rich American desserts are large enough to share. Cinnamon sticky bun with butter-pecan ice cream and caramel sauce is good, gloppy fun. Could we eat it for breakfast? Sure could ($5). House-made chocolate torte ($5), sweet and rich, approximates cold fudge or devil's food icing without the cake. Yes!

Like a kudzu vine reaching out to a weathered old house, Wisteria is a work in progress. Witnessing the weeding-out of dud dishes and the care and feeding of new guests and proven recipes should make for an interesting winter.

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