Restaurant Review - 2001: A Spice Odyssey

City's new restaurants offer fresh flavors, sensational seasonings

Despite recession, retrenchment and the catastrophes of 9-11, 2001 was a very good year for new restaurants in Atlanta. Exotic ideas supported by authentic flavors constituted the most notable trend. Pricey chain restaurants designed to look and feel like independents (and vice-versa) also were comparatively numerous, creating a striking impression.

Taking cuisine, value, ambience and service into account, 10 establishments — the best new restaurants I've reviewed this year — are well worth the time, attention and money involved. Restaurants are named in the order in which I would most gladly revisit them.

Joel, 3290 Northside Parkway, 404-233-3500. At the moment, for anyone interested in interplanetary fine dining, Joel Antunes' luxurious, eponymous brasserie shouldn't be missed. Stanley Kubrick would have loved Bill Johnson's tasty decor (banquettes in checkerboard leather, red glass-tiled wall, space- station bar, light fixtures from Mars and Venus). Few will easily resist pastry chef Philippe Givre's sumptuous sweets and baked goods, which also are available in a boutique on the premises.

But it's well-traveled owner-chef Antunes' Mediterranean-Asian fusion entrees and house-made pastas that set off the fireworks. In very rich dishes such as sauteed veal sweetbreads and cheeks in an Asian-accented reduction sauce, roast lamb tenderloin with preserved lemon and curry flavored panisse, and duck-stuffed cannelloni in thyme-scented jus, updated European concepts and techniques are wed to Asian flavors so perfectly that each marriage seems predestined, written in the stars.

Terra di Siena, 654 Peachtree St., 404-885-7505. Euro-contempo food, a straight-forward bilingual menu, post-modern ambience and right-this-minute decor combine to produce the kind of wow-zing dining experience many of us associate with overseas travel. Is this really Midtown? Can it last? Does Atlanta deserve (and will we shell out big bucks for) delectable, Tuscan treats such as handmade pasta, pecorino flan, cauliflower bisque with grilled prawns, and rolled-and-stuffed Guinea fowl breast? We should be so lucky — and pray that the owners grow rich in the process.

Fogo de Chao, 3101 Piedmont Road, 404-995-9982. First Georgia link in a Texas-Brazilian chain, this Buckhead churrascaria, specializing in skewered meats that are sliced at the table by costumed gauchos, is faster and somewhat cheaper than flying down to Rio. Unlimited servings of various unfamiliar cuts of beef, lamb and other meats, cooked over open fires and boldly flavored, are served at fixed, fairly high prices. But what a deal: all-you-can-eat rib steak, filet mignon and lamb leg — right across the street from Bone's. The salad bar is equally luxurious. Even desserts (which cost extra) are worth the calories. Only the vegetable sides fall flat. So who needs vegetables? Families and the business crowd alike will feel comfortable. Notable service and wine list.

Capital Grille, 255 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-262-1162. Another upscale chain link, this dressy business-class steakhouse from Longhorn features smashing penthouse views, manly boardroom ambience, expense-account wine prices and corn-fed Midwestern beef that is dry-aged on site. The bone-in USDA prime Delmonico steak ranks among the city's top-quality hunks of meat. Sauteed calf's liver with bacon and onions, a steakhouse standard in other cities, is perhaps the menu's best value. Mashed potatoes and creamed spinach are top accompaniments. Appetizers, desserts and salads hardly seem worth the bother and expense.

Rainwater, 11655 Haynes Bridge Road, Alpharetta, 770-777-0033. The 22,000-square-foot structure alone cost big bucks — very big bucks. Warehouse size, lit like an Orange Bowl float and a definite standout along franchise row, Rainwater has "chain prototype" written all over it. Yet it's an independent. Eclectic and edgy, over-the-top yet oddly comforting, Andrew Fotos' 500-seat Mediterranean-style suburban villa offers semi-formal American cuisine and service variously influenced by New Southern recipes, fusionary notions and mildly modernist tendencies. Whatever your mood, you can get what you want. Chef Todd Annis' "stacked" flavors (Gorgonzola cheese, fresh tomatoes and tobacco onion rings participate in the hangar-steak salad, for instance) mostly make good sense. So do his punched-up classics (sauteed lump crab cakes with avocado aioli, dressed field greens and crunchy Chinese noodles), down-home kicks (Southern fried mahi mahi on bacon-and-cheese-spiked mashed potatoes) and conceits (double-dildo-shaped bread sticks). Sometimes, more really is more.

Roy's, 3475 Piedmont Road, 404-231-3232. Based on Roy Yamaguchi's spectacularly successful Pacific-fusion formula perfected in a Honolulu suburb, this high-concept Buckhead beachhead (slickly packaged by Outback Steakhouse) manages to look and sound very Hawaiian. Culinarily, the intention seems not so much to reproduce Yamaguchi's highly personal cuisine as to mass-market it — like Wolfgang Puck frozen pizzas. At its occasional best, the kitchen produces workmanlike dishes such as coconut-crusted tiger shrimp with kaffir lime-scented cocktail sauce. Formularized sauces, in fact, are often better than the fish and meats they theoretically support. With its Kohala decor, upbeat aloha service and fancy drinks, Roy's can still be amusing, despite the dumbed-down luau cooking and jacked-up prices.

Vietnam House, Little Saigon Shopping Center, 4186 Buford Highway, 404-315-9979. One word: beef. Vietnam House offers decent versions of all the usual suspects, including crispy spring rolls, seafood and rice-combination dishes. But beef — in traditional soups (pho), rice-noodle salads, fondues and the classic beef seven ways (Bo Bay Mon) — is the point here. It's served raw (guests saute or poach the meat on tabletop grills before wrapping it in lettuce or rice paper), in sausage and meatball form (to be likewise wrapped and dipped in sauce) and as the main accent in fried rice (I don't recommend it). Service is exceptionally helpful. Fish sauce-based dips can be had in several strengths. An unexpected bonus: Restrooms are positively pristine, the cleanest I've seen on Buford Highway — or in all of Chambodia — in 15 years of reviewing restaurants.

Portofino, 3199 Paces Ferry Place, 404-231-1136. Spiritual successor to several ambitious but ultimately burned-out wine-bar-restaurants in Buckhead, this younger sister to popular Toulouse is among the city's best bets for astute pairings of food and wine. Because the wine list is composed of unheralded gems and oenological oddities, anyone but a pro should solicit advice from proprietor George Tice and his staff. The Mediterranean and American cooking has its ups (steamed mussels with lemon grass, steak with mac-and-Asiago) and downs (entree pastas, veal). Reservations are honored.

Eurasia Bistro, 129 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-687-8822. Coconut-crusted shrimp neatly arranged around a ball of perfectly cooked angel hair pasta, both afloat on a voluptuously rich, bracingly authentic-tasting Thai curry sauce, the composition topped by an edible flower. It may not sound like downtown Decatur — and, true enough, the cuisine is miles above Decatur's average. Offering predominantly Thai-influenced fusion dishes with an emphasis on seafood (pan-seared salmon in choo chee curry with asparagus; rice-flour battered calamari with a cilantro, tomato and jalapeno salsa), Eurasia is an offshoot of the successful, moderately upscale Northlake Thai Cuisine. It occupies the former space, and retains much of the decor, of Cosi, an unsuccessful spin-off of Harvest. Note that prices are higher, kitchen technique sharper and portions larger by night.

Celebrity Cafe & Bakery, 903 Peachtree at 8th Street, 404-870-0002; fax, 404-870-0268. Although geared to desktop breakfasts, informal business lunches, faxed takeout orders and boardroom catering, this modern, glass-fronted bakery cafe works well for light family meals and early sit-down suppers. Second cousin to a small, Houston, Texas, chain, the semi-independent operation prepares almost everything from scratch, including soups (try the broccoli and the meat-and-bean chili), roast chickens for sandwiches and salads (the Cobb is delectable) and baked goods. Oreo cheesecake, carrot cake and quiches of the day are worth the calories and cholesterol involved. Salads are huge, sodas bottomless, the atmosphere urban and upbeat.

Elliott Mackle wants to hear about great restaurants new and old. Contact him by e-mail at elkcam@hotmail.com or by voice mail at 404-614-2514.??