Restaurant Review - Top 5 restaurants in 2008

Where did the year go? The end of 2008 snuck up so quickly and stealthily, it blindsided me. One thing that helps bring me back to a relatively reasonable pace, or at least not a speed-of-light pace, is to look back at the year's restaurant openings. January might seem like yesterday when I think about the economy, but it feels like an actual year ago when I consider all the new restaurants that have opened since then. Many of those restaurants have contributed to making this otherwise sucky year a little easier to swallow. While the five on this list aren't strictly the year's highest rated, they are the ones that made my year better.

5) Cakes & Ale 3 stars

The wonderful thing about this Decatur spot is that it just gets better and better. When chef/owner (and former Watershed sous chef) Billy Allin opened the restaurant, he showed flashes of brilliance, especially when it came to salads and simple roasted meats. Some things seemed too simple, but Allin has since taken the reigns and perfected the tone of his cooking. This winter, root vegetables and winter squash accompany slow-roasted meats for ultimate comfort. Cakes & Ale also has one of the most intimate and enjoyable bars in town, with an eclectic wine selection to match the quirky and friendly servers. 254 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-377-7994. www.cakesandalerestaurant.com.

4) La Pietra Cucina 3 stars

There are two things that excite me about La Pietra Cucina. One is chef Bruce Logue's cooking – an inventive mix of classic and modern Italian that pushes all kinds of boundaries. Dishes are as simple as Proscuitto de Parma with house-made ricotta and as wild as black spaghetti, colored with squid ink and served with shrimp and highly spiced Italian sausage. The second is what the restaurant might become. Currently housed in the side room of the mammoth MidCity Cuisine space, the plan is for the restaurant to expand into a much larger operation in 2009. I can't wait to see what an expanded menu, wine list and space will mean for Logue's visionary cooking. 1545 Peachtree St., Suite 101. 404-888-8709.

3) Craft Atlanta. Not yet rated.

You'll have to wait until February to read my full Craft review (although Cliff Bostock will have a first look next week), but what I can tell you is that Tom Colicchio isn't messing around with his Atlanta outpost of Craft. The restaurant has managed to cull some of the city's finest service talent from other top spots, making for a seamless dining experience. And Colicchio's aesthetic of simple, luxurious food, served family style and à la carte, is a testament to the fact that restraint can be as effective as creativity on the plate. Roasted sunchokes, anyone? Mmm.... 3376 Peachtree Road. 404-995-7580. www.craftatlanta.com.

2) Sushi House Hayakawa 3 stars

Atsushi "Art" Hayakawa has managed to transform his small corner of Buford Highway into an authentic slice of Japan, from the pristine fish flown in daily to the formal, almost reverent service, to the long list of sake and sochu. Dishes such as monkfish liver in ponzu sauce are likely to convert even the less adventurous eaters in your party, and the long list of Japanese bar snacks are perfect for washing down sake at midnight (perfectly feasible since Hayakawa is open until 2 a.m. on weekends). 5979 Buford Highway. 770-986-0010. www.atlantasushibar.com.

1) Holeman and Finch 4 stars

Holeman and Finch wasn't the first gastropub in Atlanta, but it is the best, and it may inspire imitators for years to come. The restaurant's dedication to alcohol is what I appreciate – all kinds of alcohol, from Greg Best's amazing cocktails to a fantastic beer and wine selection. H&F goes beyond good booze to provide food designed to complement booze. And it's not just boring bar fare – the classic charcuterie plate for wine swillers, the perfect slutty hamburger for beer drinkers, and all kinds of offal that goes down well with a deftly mixed cocktail (feel free to drink and match as necessary). More than any other restaurant, Holeman and Finch helped make 2008 bearable. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-948-1175. www.holeman-finch.com.

Most memorable dishes of 2008

We love lists – especially at the end of the year. And so, in no particular order, here are my top 10 picks for the best dishes I had in 2008.

• The almond croissant at Parish

• Mussel and salami salad at Cakes & Ale

• The Proscuitto de Parma at La Pietra Cucina

• Fesenjan stew at Falafel Café

• The vegetable plate at the National in Athens

• Buttermilk pancakes and foie gras at Home

• The burger at Holeman and Finch

• Apple and beet soup at Dynamic Dish

• Korean BBQ at Hanil Kwan

• Monkfish liver at Sushi House Hayakawa