Restaurant Review - Outstanding in their field

Grazing through 2001

Years ago, when I was editor of a design magazine, I was surprised to learn that there is some board somewhere that convenes annually to decide which colors will be stylish in the coming years. This, of course, guarantees everything we own of a decorative nature will become passe rapidly enough to keep the design business profitable. Honestly, the degree to which our tastes are directly regulated by marketing is shocking.

I don't think there is a similar board directing culinary taste, although, of course, there are trade shows and gourmet gatherings. Our dining habits, I think, are more broadly influenced — by our psychological disposition, our personal economy, our social comfort, etc. — than is our eye for color.

Thus, I think the big story in restaurant dining in the last year is the same story that affects everything else in our culture: the recession. It's interesting to think back to this time two years ago when everyone was in a tizzy about Y2K and the fear that failure of computer technology would send us all to the mountains to forage for berries and squirrel meat. Interesting, isn't it, that two years later we are in the midst of a recession arguably initiated by the relative economic collapse of that industry?

This has had the obvious effect of cutting nearly every restaurant's business significantly, but it seems to show up on menus in a variety of ways. To my eyes, the most conspicuous change seems to be a reduction in beef entrees. A few years ago, when dot-com predators were at their most obnoxious, steak houses were opening all over town and beef was brought back to everyone's menu with great bravura and a reminder that you could take Lipitor to reduce your cholesterol.

I don't think it's my imagination that this has changed. Sure, Fogo de Chao, the ultimate beef extravaganza, opened here last year. But nearly every restaurant I visit now — from Babette's and Dish to Bacchanalia — seems to feature fish more prominently than in the immediate past. Fishbone provides some of the best seafood dining in the city now, with Atlanta Fish Market close behind. Fish is not always cheaper than beef, that's for sure. I think this is more of a psychological change, probably also connected to health concerns.

Generally, it does seem to me that restaurants here in the last year became a bit more health conscious. We still don't have a really good American vegetarian restaurant in town, but Udipi, a popular Indian spot, remains the best of the ethnic choices. Teaspace, an arty little cafe in Little Five Points, opened last year and serves mainly vegetarian noodle dishes and, we should note, the bubble teas that are so popular in other urban areas of America. (You also can sip the stuff at Jinhuchun Tea on Buford Highway.) At the opposite end, Guenter Seeger began serving a vegetarian menu alternative at Seeger's last year. Really, every good restaurant in the city now offers vegetarian choices and most of them are far better than anything served in the city's post-hippie cafes.

Besides reducing calories and cholesterol, some restaurants have introduced Atlantans to healthier grazing on small portions. If I had to identify a single trend that's overtaken the city in the last year, it would be tapas. Gladys Parada's Andaluz heads my list for the reason that it is the most authentic, taking its inspiration from southern Spain where tapas were developed. You also can see a flamenco show there Wednesday nights. Other tapas venues that opened include Pura Vida and Sweet Devil Moon. We also have Mambo, Eclipse di Luna and Loca Luna. You can eat similarly by grazing on Mediterranean specialties at the bar at Eno, probably my favorite Midtown restaurant.

I think the popularity of tapas and small portions reflects the growing understanding in America that we really do not need to eat three huge meals a day. For the same reason, sushi bars are opening right and left. Nobody will replace Soto as the city's best, but the general quality of sushi — from Hashiguchi to Prime and Cherry — is improving. If we all grazed on small, mainly protein dishes for our evening meal, we'd see our body fat drop quickly.

I'm betting the recessionary economy, combined with the psychological effects of Sept. 11's attacks, are going to reinforce an already evident trend — the neighborhood restaurant. Diners are looking for less expensive menus, pleasantly decorated dining rooms and hospitable hosts. We want connection, not drama. Among the newcomers in this category are: Bang in Little Five Points, The Eating House in Grant Park, Carroll Street Cafe in Cabbagetown, Gato de Noche in Candler Park and (slightly pricier) Wisteria in Inman Park.

The demand for comfort — but not necessarily fancy elegance — also shows up in the increasing value we all place on artisan foods. Indeed, Atlanta now has its own chapter of Slow Food International (indiasjules@hotmail.com). We can now shop during the warm months at an outdoor organic market in Morningside and nearly every good restaurant in the city — from Watershed to Mumbo Jumbo and Horseradish Grill — insists on organic produce. We can buy amazing cheeses at Star Provisions and weird and wonderful herbs and ethnic specialties at Buford Highway Farmers' Market. We can lick ourselves silly with honey fig ice cream from Jake's on North Highland.

Among the most conspicuous expressions of the artisan movement is the explosion of good bakeries. My favorites remain The Bread Garden and Alon's, but I also like the German Basket Bakery in Stone Mountain and the Greek goodies from The International Bakery on Cheshire Bridge. Travel out Buford Highway and you will find many Asian bakeries, including Hong Kong Bakery. Mondo bakes the best sweets in our city by far.

As far as flavors go, fusion still reigns but it has become at once subtler and more international. Of course, the Asian influence is still strongest, even dominant. Roy's introduced us to Hawaiian fusion in the last year. But you can also go to Five Seasons Brewing, among the best new restaurants to open last year, and eat a few Japanese specialties or fusion dishes with Mediterranean accents.

Find haute fusion at the drama-drenched Blue Pointe or Spice. A very broad fusion from many countries, costing a bit less, can be had at Cherry and at Cavu (which is directly across from Spice in Midtown, on Juniper, where restaurants are opening more often than I drive by there.) Even Scott Peacock, master of Southern cooking, is serving a Greek-style fish on Watershed's menu these days. The very best fusion, traveling under the New American label, is at Oscar's, arguably the best restaurant to open last year.

Italian, of course, continues to thrill Atlantans, though not as many new places opened in the last year. Baraonda, a small inexpensive spot in Midtown, competes with the new, nearby and pricey Terra di Siena. Sotto Sotto's owner opened Fritti on North Highland last year and it is serving the city's best designed pizzas. It's another place you can graze — on antipasti.

The French still dominate us. Guenter Seeger rules the city from a little white cottage on West Paces Ferry, turning out some of America's most passionately brainy food. Now his successor at the Ritz Carlton, Buckhead, where he was formerly chef, has opened Joel. I'm sorry that Joel Antunes has opened his restaurant in a hideously banal building in Buckhead, but he is turning out fabulous brasserie fare. His cooking is far richer and more romantic than Seeger's, and that is going to have the city debating the two chefs.

Finally, we should mention decor trends. The Johnson Studio still rules. It has ranged all over the map with lovely po-mo interiors like Prime's, ultra-dramatic ones like Blue Pointe's, outrageously hideous ones like Cheesecake Factory's. The latest is at Joel, almost universally described as chilly modernist.

This may hold up for those evenings we wish to forget the apocalyptic sight of planes ripping through skyscrapers and overnight millionaires hitting the skids. I'm guessing, though, that many Atlantans will be looking for more comfort and less gloss — or perhaps such decors will simply remind us of the growing gulf between the rich and the not-so-rich in America.

Ingredient of the year: arugula. Piled on pizzas, tossed with pears and nuts in salads, wilted over pasta — the stuff is everywhere. Second place probably goes to the chili pepper. Though restaurants like Sundown, Nava and Georgia Grille have been using them creatively for years, they are now migrating to places as diverse as Houston's. It's a good thing. But I dread the day they become as stale to the palate as yesterday's kiwi fruit, sundried tomatoes and garlic-mashed potatoes.