Restaurant Review - Stormy weather

Midtown's Cavu doesn't deliver on its navigator name

The year my mother turned 40, she announced she was getting her pilot's license. I suspect it was her way of gaining a bit of independence from her political husband and two adolescent children.

Nevertheless, I sat with Mom at the kitchen table before her exams, using flashcards to help her memorize various aviator acronyms, one of which I recall was CAVU, meaning "Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited." In pilot speak, a "CAVU day" is a beautiful day to fly — clear, blue skies.

I muse over that memory as I sit in the upstairs dining room of Cavu - A Midtown Bistro on the corner of Juniper and 5th, and I can't help but feel the pang of irony. Unlike the allusion of clarity in the name, this restaurant is an enigmatic muddle of contradictions that becomes apparent the moment you walk in the door.

At first glance, the foyer of this converted house gives off a cozy vibe, particularly at the beginning of the evening before the bar off to the side becomes jammed with black-clad martini sippers. The lighting is soft. The hosts have big, hospitable smiles. Then the music reaches your ears: the all-too-familiar drone of techno/trance/house/ambient electronica that has become the signature sound of Atlanta's trendy restaurants. It provides a party-while-the-parents-are-away vibe that just doesn't fit the space.

The restaurant closed briefly earlier this year, in part to accommodate kitchen changes. Former chef Delroy Bowen had a penchant for off-the-wall fusion cuisine — lobster and guava salad, sea bass with hibiscus-ginger sauce — that was often fascinating but also wildly uneven. His successor, Mike Schorn, unfortunately goes too far in the other direction. The menu now reads like a condensed compendium on popular dishes conceived in the last several years, and they often come off busy and unfocused.

Meals start encouragingly. A basket brought to the table contains a small, warm loaf of herbaceous bread as well as pappadam, a crispy Indian wafer made from lentil flour. The wine list has some affordable, food-friendly choices, including several good Zinfandels. You glance around the brown and beige-swathed room (pray you are seated upstairs), craning your neck around corners to people-watch, admiring the evocative natural landscape paintings by local artist Laura Bowman. It feels comfortable in here. Then the appetizers arrive.

The first bite of the tuna tartare ($9) is lovely. The tuna itself, presented in the obligatory round molding, is fresh and sparkling with spice. The avocado underneath is ripe and creamy. But the sticky rice terrine plopped next to the tuna is a gelatinous mound not worth more than one experimental mouthful.

Other dishes follow suit. Grilled quail ($9) is arranged prettily on the plate, but the bony pieces don't offer more than a few nibbles of meat, and the ginger sauce is too sweet. "Smoked" jumbo blue prawns ($12) have a distinct chemical taste. If the kitchen offered those babies simply grilled or broiled with the same frisky shrimp toast and lime-tinted chorizo, the dish would work beautifully.

My favorite appetizer is an uncomplicated plate of roasted beets, dollops of whipped brie on crostini and a simple salad tossed with a red wine vinaigrette ($8). It's a pleasure to enjoy the clean, earthy flavors.

The entree list is the culinary equivalent to world beat music: At least six ethnicities are thrown together. Lobster tail ($27) remains sweet and silky in its light tempura batter, and I can play along with the kitschy lobster-fried rice served beneath, but the dish is undermined by a cloying Szechwan peppercorn-carrot emulsion. Likewise, the fork-tender pork osso bucco ($17) has promise, but the flavors of its Moroccan-spiced plate mate, a chickpea stew, are murky and monotonous.

Several plates mostly come up to scratch. I'm seduced by the autumnal flavors of the sweet potato polenta and apple cider butter served with the prosciutto-crusted monkfish ($18), though the supposedly crispy sage adorning the plate is quite flaccid the night I try it. The filet mignon ($25) with whipped potatoes and ciopollini onions looks and tastes like it came from a culinary school textbook, but, like the roasted beet appetizer, is an oasis of simplicity. Ditto the pan-roasted chicken ($17) with celery root ravioli and a tasty chestnut brown butter.

This restaurant has two good things going for it — service, and an early-bird dinner special. During each visit, a different spunky, friendly server greets us at the table. The food is paced well, the check comes when we're ready for it, and we leave feeling well taken care of (albeit with a techno beat bouncing around in our brains).

Between 5:30-6:30 p.m. nightly, the restaurant offers five entrees, including the pork osso bucco and filet mignon, for $10 each. These dishes taste all the better at bargain prices. On the whole, though, Cavu's sky is far from cloudless.