Restaurant Review - He's baaaaack!

Paul Luna does tapas with a twist at new Cafe Mystique

Credenza: n. A buffet, bookcase or sideboard, especially one without legs. From the Italian word credentia, or trust, possibly derived from the Renaissance practice of placing food and drink on a sideboard to be first tasted by a servant to ensure that it contained no poison.

Credenza: A multi-tiered metal stand designed to hold tapas plates, and the irritating concept behind the menu of the 2-month-old Cafe Mystique.

Paul Luna's tiny frame and puckish grin have emerged again in Atlanta, after diverse stints in Las Vegas and Hogansville, Ga. The culinary enfant terrible, known for his impromptu strip tease acts, looks right at home in his new restaurant chatting with scantily clad women at the long bar, or sitting down with a couple at their table to expound on his technique for braised lamb.

The former Peachtree Cafe in the heart of Buckhead has been given the Luna treatment: the outside faìade is colored a vivid mustard, maroon curtains billow from the terrace windows, and the inside walls have been painted cobalt blue. Moroccan lights hang languidly from the ceiling, and small oil lamps cast iridescent shadows. Partitions have been erected to give the space a seductive House of Mirrors effect.

Sticking to the format that has made his previous restaurants Eclipse de Luna and Loca Luna ongoing success stories (even after his departure), Luna and his partner, Marco Bracci, are focusing on tapas — with a fussy variation. Here's where the whole credenza business comes into play.

The menu is divided into three prix-fixe sections, each labeled "Credenza of Food for Two," and each with a different price: $19, $32 and $38. From each section, you get a choice of three dishes. After you stare at the menu for a while generating a number of questions (What if I want two dishes from one section and one dish from another? How do you feed a table of five? What's the point of this, anyway?), a server eventually appears to guide you through the experience. The $19 section is all tapas dishes. The $32 and $38 sections contain both tapas and entree portions. Yes, you can swap similar items from another list, and yes, you can order a la carte. Ready to order?

The good news is that once you decide how best to tackle the menu, you'll find much of the food to be worth the trouble it took to order. Servers place the infamous credenza in the middle of the table and you dig in. Florida shrimp taste fresh and zesty paired with tomato fondue and feta cheese. The ubiquitous tomato-mozzarella salad gets a lift from creamy, homemade mozzarella and zippy tomato compote. Slow-roasted chicken with picholine olives is surprisingly juicy. I love the salty, jammy lemon confit that comes with the dish.

Be aware that Luna is still tinkering with dishes, and that the staff may not alert you. Having ordered gnocchi over Bolognese sauce one visit, we are surprised to find wedges of polenta on our credenza instead of the soft potato dumplings we were expecting. Our server disappears for so long that we chow down anyway. The polenta is herbaceous and comforting, and the rich meat sauce is tinged with rosemary. No one complains. The braised lamb, listed on the menu as being cooked in coconut milk and orange gremolata, is more like a sophisticated version of Mom's pot roast, fork-tender and served with roasted zucchini and tomatoes.

There are occasional missteps. The South Georgia roast pork is stringy and fatty the night we try it, with an overpowering vinegar aftertaste. Pan-roasted tilapia suffers from a heavy hand with the salt, and the zucchini-fontina torte accompanying the fish sounds intriguing but turns out to be mostly potato and eggplant.

Service can be uncoordinated. On a recent Saturday night, there were three servers waiting on our table of five, yet they all disappeared for long stretches of time. You certainly aren't rushed through your meal here. Don't forget, though, you only get two hours of free parking before the restaurant's valet service starts charging you. This is Buckhead, after all.

I'm not so sure I believe the PR rumors circulating that Luna has calmed down. Luna stops by our table to greet us one evening and invites my friend and I to a Sunday brunch at the restaurant, intimating that a strip show would be included with the meal. And apparently he's going to announce on his website, www.lunacooks.com, that he's planning to run for mayor. Sounds like the same ol' Luna to me.

That Paul Luna is unpredictable is part of his — and the restaurant's — charm. Cafe Mystique has promise. If Luna drops the credenza shtick and just serves us reasonably priced plates of tapas like he has in the past, he'll have a winner on his hands.??