Restaurant Review - Georgia Grille on my mind

Southwestern-influenced fare is too much of a good thing

I must warn you about the potato fritters. After the first bite — crunchy on the outside, mooshy on the inside, a transforming blend of comforting, earthy potato set on edge by the accompanying horseradish cream ($3) — you'll think you want to pop these critters in your mouth all night long. You may even think you want to put your face right into the sauce, it is so piquant and exhilarating. Don't do it! Eat more than two and you will regret it. They're astonishingly filling, for one thing. But the horseradish sauce, ah, that's the difficulty. It doesn't matter that it's delicious; its sharpness will knock out your tastebuds, rendering the rest of the meal pointless.

That result is typical lately at Georgia Grille. Opened 12 years ago by Karen Hilliard, who once teamed in the kitchen with her son, Billy Kennedy (no longer associated with the restaurant), Georgia Grille pays homage to the artist Georgia O'Keeffe with a bleached steer skull over the doorway and a small menu heavy on peppers and Monterey Jack cheese.

Past menus, while limited to roughly the same number of dishes, included some elegant choices. I'm remembering a meal at the now-closed Alpharetta location, a silky salad of smoked Ducktrap River trout; succulent Gulf shrimp and scallops on a sauce of tomato, sweet pepper and roasted garlic; and a platter of the most luscious roasted vegetables I've ever eaten. I regret to report that such lightness and juxtaposition of honest flavors is missing from the current menu.

Like the food, Georgia Grille's little dining room combines hits and misses. Walls painted in bright, deep yellow, blue and red make an excellent visual backdrop for paintings (O'Keeffe and her photographer husband Alfred Stieglitz, naturally) and Southwestern knickknacks. A metal wine rack hangs high on one wall, as decorative as anything else. But the positioning of 14 painted tables in the main room (there are six more tables in an adjacent smaller room) is too close to be cozy, and the slender chairs are not comfortable.

Pleasures and disappointments likewise permeate the food on substantial white plates and in deep, wide soup bowls. The fragrant smoked chicken chowder ($6), for example, is happily full of hickory-smoked chicken, corn kernels and chunks of potatoes. Unfortunately, the chicken tastes watery and the chowder's body is thin. Similarly, a trio of grilled shrimp on a black bean pancake (a $7 appetizer) is agreeably crunchy and spicy hot. But the pancake's heavy texture is unappealing, the black beans flavorless. The heat of the smoked poblano cream sauce served alongside enhances neither component. That same smoked poblano cream cannot hide the watery taste and texture of hickory-grilled yellow fin tuna ($18), accompanied by equally watery black beans.

Caesar salad (with whole wheat croutons, $6; with herb crumb crusted chicken, $10) is consistently reliable, as is Georgia Grille's signature dish, lobster enchiladas ($22). I must say, though, that I prefer Maine lobster without cheese in it and on top of it.

Several other entrees suffer from the cheese treatment, and that is not always revealed in the menu's text. Doublecheck with your server before making your selection. Entree items include: grilled Black Angus ribeye topped with onion rings ($20); smoked chicken enchiladas rolled with sour cream and onion, served with a green chile bechamel sauce ($15); a salmon quesadilla topped with chipotle cream ($17); and shrimp and jalapeno cheese grits ($16). Daily specials are: Tuesday, fried catfish ($15); Wednesday, grilled salmon trio ($17); Thursday, chicken Monterey ($14); Sunday, Santa Fe enchilada (with a fried egg on top, $11).

Among the desserts (each one $5), I am partial to the peach-blackberry cobbler, a massive thing delivered to the table in a large white soup bowl. The mildly tart berries contrast nicely with the slightly sweet sugared crust top. It comes with ice cream but to my mind, that, like the insidious cheese, is overkill.??