Restaurant Review - Oscar's night

Sumptuous and cozy in the back lot of College Park

"Wow, is this place for real? It's like a time warp."

This is typically the response from friends when I veer the car off the stretch of highway that leads to Hartsfield Airport and turn instead onto the funky, dilapidated strip of College Park's Main Street directly across from a MARTA station. It looks like a Southern ghost town conceived on the back lot of Universal Studios — a place where Tom Hanks or Denzel Washington would stand staring alone, wistfully, right before the movie's flashback sequence begins.

Beyond the row of deserted or near-deserted storefronts, however, there are signs of life across from the old train depot near the tracks. This is the site of Oscar Morales' eponymous restaurant, a stylish spot that serves imaginative, sure-handed New American cuisine in an elegant environment. Open now for two years, Oscar's still feels like a well-kept secret. That should change.

Morales has created a lovely, open space that manages to feel both posh and welcoming. The restaurant's most famous feature — the deftly restored, orange and white Coca-Cola advertisement found during renovation — is only one of the many details that make the interplay of old-and-new design elements here work. Polished blond woods, original black and white tiles in the restrooms, a sexy white bar and aged brick walls all make Oscar's a feast for the eyes.

The food, by and large, keeps pace with the sumptuous surroundings. There are chefs who are impulsive and there are chefs who are thinkers, and Executive Chef Todd Immel seems to be the latter. His creations are carefully conceived yet lively, and though key ingredients may remain on the menu, their preparation and accompaniments change slowly with the seasons.

Consider his wild striped bass: The fish ($24) is served over a mild cauliflower puree and surrounded by delectable little bites of calamari tossed in a vinaigrette made from the squid's own ink. What a tasty reminder that there are other ways to eat calamari than fried and served with aioli or marinara. Likewise the Niman Ranch sirloin steak ($28), which playfully diverges from the archetypal American presentation by being paired with a tangle of watercress and warm potato salad. A port reduction and a thin wedge of Point Reyes blue cheese — the Maytag of the new millennium — charm the maximum flavor out of the savory piece of meat.

A shaved fennel salad ($10) recently added to the menu is just the thing I want to eat with the season's change. Spiked with orange slices and mellowed with translucent slices of pecorino, the dish gets an extra kick from a scattering of pomegranate seeds. And I'm surprised by how much I enjoy the Lyonnaise salad ($8), which consists of frisee, bacon, goat cheese and a poached egg on top. What seals the deal is that the curly frisee is wilted, which tempers its wispy texture and helps it meld with the other ingredients.

One of their signature items is Sardinian flatbread ($10), a crispy, plate-sized wafer that is currently topped with porchetta, Parmesan, and a generous dousing of pungent black truffle oil, which you can smell before the dish even arrives at the table. It's a great starter for sharing.

Little gripes emerge here and there with the appetizers. An acidic apple salad doesn't marry well with the slices of proscuitto ($12) with which it is served. The tourchon of foie gras ($15) comes with a lip-smacking fig chutney and a well-balanced onion compote, but the foie gras itself is a bit too dense and doesn't have quite the suppleness one expects when paying for that decadent luxury. I'm taken by the earthy, sweet flavor of the crimson beet soup ($6), but I bet it would be even better if they kicked up the horseradish that is mentioned as an ingredient on the menu. I could barely taste it.

While I'm nitpicking, let's talk about the skate wing ($20). The fish is cooked beautifully — no complaints there. But with Immel's creative mind, I'd love to see a more novel saucing than the unadventurous and overdone caper brown-butter sauce with spinach on the side. I'm sure he could mine the possibilities. And maybe he's sick of serving it, but I for one would be grateful to see the return of the pork shank with rye gnocchi and sauerkraut. It's an incredibly flavorful, original spin on Alsatian cuisine, and is one of the reasons I fell in love with the restaurant when it first opened.

The dessert menu continues the cerebral explorations, but let your eyes wander to the anisette-bitter chocolate tart ($9) at the bottom of the page. I will confess to not being a chocoholic, but this little gem may turn me right around. The custardy chocolate filling is splashed with a hint of Sambuca, and the toothsome crust is a cross between shortbread and graham cracker. Score.

Oscar's is one of those treasures I recommend to people who want to avoid Buckhead on the weekends or who simply want to try fine dining in an atmosphere divorced from the hubbub. I'm tellin' ya, you'd be surprised how quick the drive is to College Park from Buckhead or Midtown, particularly on the weekend, or after 8 p.m. when traffic dies down. And when you walk out of the restaurant feeling flushed from a great meal in an unexpected location, you might look around you and believe this run-down corner of the world will have a happy ending after all.