Restaurant Review - Nesting at Birdi's

Colorful, cozy and drink-oriented in Decatur

I don't understand this menu," exclaimed my guest, clearly puzzled. "It has no theme. It has no focus!"

That's because he was looking at the wrong thing. He was checking out the food. The relevant menu at Birdi's isn't that large laminated sheet touting baked brie, artichoke dip, beer-battered onion rings and chicken fingers, it's the slender, padded blue vinyl volume listing the martinis and Manhattans. Birdi's isn't so much a restaurant with a bar in the front as it is a bar with a restaurant lurking above.

Birdi's occupies the building that formerly housed Food Business, off the charming square in the heart of Decatur. This primo location just begs the strolling throngs to come in, take a seat and sip the night away. Accordingly, the brief list of food offers no adventures and plenty of salt, to complement the drinks (unless one orders the chocolate martini).

The atmosphere is so pleasant, what with the small round or square tables draped with orchid or chartreuse tablecloths. The walls are a riot of saturated color — purple and red and acid green and chrome yellow — offset by black tile floors accented by the occasional yellow or red tile.

The bar and a few tables occupy the ground floor of the open three-level public area. Up one flight is the nonsmoking section. Smokers get the top level with the scenic view of the square. Each section has a cozy black vinyl couch and chair grouping, a modified Chesterfield style. You know, the ones with the thick arms and deep seats for settling in. And so we did, pulling the low, square coffee table up to our knees.

We had plenty of time to ponder our choices, service not being a strong suit here. This will be good news to anyone who loves lingering over drinks, which, after all, is the point.

To accompany the martinis, Birdi's offers a quartet of oyster dishes: oysters shucked to order ($3.75 for six; $7 for 12); the traditional counterfeit version of oysters Rockefeller (with spinach and bacon, $4.25 for six or $8 for 12); oysters Fra Diavolo (baked in spicy tomato parmesan sauce, $4.25 for six or $8 for 12); and just plain fried oysters with homemade tartar sauce ($4.25 for six; $8 for 12).

Shrimp cocktail ($4 and $8) and mussels Capri (with olive oil, garlic and white wine, $7.95) are an option, too. We, however, chose to share a plate of calamari ($7.95) fried in a ginger-flecked batter and served with green onion citrus sauce.

This dish exemplifies the kitchen's work, which is, in a word, heavy. Strangely enough, that is not necessarily bad. Naturally, I could have done without the paste-like heft and texture of one recent evening's chilled cucumber-dill soup ($2.25 a cup, 3.95 a bowl). But a fat, thick-crusted spring roll with a savory shrimp-peanut filling was crunchy-crisp, a happy contrast of flavor and texture. Likewise, the calamari's coating, although thick, was without a trace of grease. These tasty bits are much better alone than they are slathered with the thick, odd onion-citrus concoction accompanying them.

Pastas, including a recent spring vegetable risotto special, weigh on one's fork, too, especially if one chooses the cream sauce over the pesto or marinara. The flavors of the various components blend so nicely, though, that they satisfy in spite of this. That would be penne with artichoke hearts, kalamata olives and feta ($8.95); farfalle with grilled chicken and sauteed spinach ($8.95) or penne with shrimp, mussels and grilled fish ($9.95).

Two things to appreciate about Birdi's: that any sauce or dressing automatically comes on the side, and that an honest effort is made to accommodate vegetarian patrons. Servers, for all their inattention, do volunteer whether a soup base, for example, is all-vegetable. There's a beef burger ($5.95) and a vegetarian bean and veggie patty ($5.75). And along with a tilapia po'boy ($7.50), there's a melted brie sandwich with cucumber, tomato and basil ($5.50).

Salads — house ($4.50), Caesar ($6) and Greek ($6) — can go either way. The greens may not be fascinating (iceberg reigns) but they're fresh enough, and make a nice bed for herb or blackened chicken (add $2), or for an extra $3 get four beautifully grilled shrimp. If that sounds outrageous to you — four measly little shrimp for $3? — just pop one of these gems into your mouth, sit back and enjoy a burst of flavor to equal the saturated color enveloping you. And perhaps linger over another drink.??