Restaurant debutantes

The best new chews of 2002

Atlanta’s restaurants faced a challenging 2002. It was a year in which the wheat was separated from the chaff: Restaurants that were just scraping by either closed or seriously revamped their menus, and many successful establishments lowered prices to remain attractive to restaurant-goers skittish about blowing big, ’90s-style bucks on a meal. As the economy stubbornly refused to improve, chefs and restaurateurs were forced to get creative about how to keep their chairs filled with happy, satisfied customers.

Not that Atlantans have stopped eating out. The lines continue to trail out the doors of wallet and palate pleasers like Taqueria del Sol, and it’s difficult to snag Saturday night reservations for culinary luminaries such as Bacchanalia or Aria. Most of us are way too busy to cook for ourselves every night, and we still want to celebrate special occasions, or even the week’s end, by treating ourselves to a superb dinner in a stylish restaurant.

Though the rate of restaurant openings in Atlanta slowed considerably this year, a number of notably diverse and creative eateries managed to spring into being, and the city’s savvy diners showed up to see what was cooking. The following eight establishments are the best new restaurants I visited this year, all of which I look forward to returning to again soon.

Byblos. Just when you thought you couldn’t face another plate of hummus or baba ghanoush, along comes this open, sunny Middle Eastern spot, serving Lebanese specialties with more originality and finesse heretofore seen in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Concentrate your appetite on the hot and cold mezza, small plates of tapas designed for nibbling and sharing. The fattoush salad is outstanding, as are the grape leaves, shanklish (a spiced cheese dish made with yogurt), and piquant sausages. Service can be flakier than the baklava, but all is forgiven when the kitchen hits its stride and the delicious array of dishes starts arriving at your table. 10684 Alpharetta Highway, Roswell, 678-352-0321,

Figo Pasta. This small but frisky pasta joint is right in step with the times. Customers match fresh pasta, made on the premises in plain view, with their choice of nine traditional yet finely tuned sauces, and grab a spot at the 12-person counter to chow down (though many also opt for carry-out). Did I mention that every generous portion is priced under $10? Don’t ignore the specials, including the silken butternut squash ravioli in radicchio-mascarpone cream sauce, and a rapturous gemelli carbonara. If only Atlanta, like Rome, had one of these gems on every corner. 1170-B Collier Road, 404-351-9667.

Kyma. The latest concept by Pano Karatassos’ Buckhead Life Group is a paean to his Greek heritage. Minoan marble columns and a dramatic sheer waterfall in the restaurant’s foyer set the scene. Seafood takes center stage, particularly the daily changing selection of fish served simply grilled with lemon, olive oil and capers. This is where I send skeptics who tell me they can’t find fresh fish in Atlanta. Try the Greek yogurt, luscious in its unfussiness with candied walnuts and honey, for dessert. Be warned that the simple, heartfelt flavors of the Aegean served here come with a hefty price tag. 3085 Piedmont Road, 404-262-0702,

MF Sushi Bar. Chris “Magic Fingers” Kinjo and his black-clad brother Alex have taken raw fish to a new level of hip in the ATL. Housed in a new condo building on Ponce next to the venerable old Krispy Kreme, the restaurant is a smooth study of curving light woods offset by the steady thump of a techno beat overhead. Don’t arrive with a craving for tempura or miso soup — it’s all about the sushi and sashimi here. An unusual and impeccable selection of fish makes this a don’t-miss destination for sushi enthusiasts. The extensive list of cold sake merits exploration, and the freshly grated wasabi is worth its $4 surcharge. 265 Ponce de Leon Ave., Unit B, 404-815-8844,

One Midtown Kitchen. Where have all the beautiful people gone? To this frenetic restaurant down a dark, dead-end street off Monroe Drive, it seems. One Midtown Kitchen is the see and be scene sizzler of the season. The throngs appear as much for the affordable prices as for the sexy vibe and titillating people watching (you’re apt to spot at least one person to which you’ve been amorously tied in the past). Menu winners include mussels in blood orange broth and hanger steak with parmesan-herb fries. The wine list is eccentric and affordable. Know that waits can be torturously long and the sound levels raucously loud. 559 Dutch Valley Road, 404-892-4111,

Saigon Cafe. One glance around the dining room lets you know that pho is the way to go at this Vietnamese newcomer, tucked into a shopping center anchored by T.J. Maxx. Everyone’s slurping from steaming porcelain bowls packed with meat and noodles. Saigon’s beef pho broth is subtly, hauntingly perfumed with star anise, a flavor accentuated with basil leaves. Bamboo dominates the decorating scheme here, with attractive bottles of pickled vegetables serving as tchotchkes on shelves. If you haven’t yet tried a bubble tea, with squiggly black blobs of tapioca that taste like gummy bears floating at the bottom of your glass, this is a good place to take the plunge. 3675 Satellite Blvd., Duluth, 770-232-5070.

Ted’s Montana Grill. Though I’m not usually one to espouse the pleasures of chain restaurants, Ted Turner and company have won me over with their bison burgers. Homey, juicy and lean, these babies can be extravagantly topped with over a dozen combinations of ingredients, from blue cheese to guacamole to barbecue sauce. Beef burgers are available for those who aren’t game for bison, and there’s even a tasty veggie burger for the meat-free among us. This is a great spot for the family: Prices are reasonable, the polished Wild West decor is soothing and comfortable, and service is fast and welcoming. 5165 Peachtree Parkway, Suite 205, Norcross, 678-405-0305; 314 City Circle, Suite 1320, Peachtree City, 678-829-0272,

Woodfire Grill. Michael Tuohy, who started his career in Atlanta with the long gone but never forgotten Chefs’ Cafe, has created a restaurant through which you can watch the seasons slowly turn on the ever-evolving menu. His Northern California aesthetic combines pristine ingredients with rustic sophistication. As varieties of meat, fish and vegetables change with the time of year, you can always count on one staple item: the delicious free-range chicken served with garlicky greens and pommes frites. The cheese course tastes as good as you would expect after you ogle the night’s delectable, ripe specimens in the French-made cabinet on the way to your table. 1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055,