Restaurant Review - Terra Garden Grill

No-fat city: Lean cuisine and buffalo chips at Terra Garden Grille

Quick-serve, upscale, 1 pro-health dining for the carriage trade fits the times. Today, few two-income, commuting families cook anything more complicated than frozen pizza. Boston Market and Harris-Teeter takeout have eaten their 15 minutes. Frozen dinners are famously high-fat, heavily salted and over-chemicalized.

The owners of Terra Garden Grille intend to fill the gap. A new concept for Atlanta, Terra offers elegant setting, central location, service-counter convenience, low-fat grill cuisine and a selection of premium beers and wines to suit the pricey Northside neighborhood. Creamy, eggy, fatty sauces are few; the percentage of protein-based items high.

Though a couple of rough spots still demand managerial smoothing, the prototype is drawing customers. Homebound couples, Lenox-area shoppers, frantic families and novelty seekers should check out some of the offerings.

Hidden in the strip-center shadow of a Harris-Teeter-turned-Kroger, Terra faces busy Brookhaven MARTA Station and the river of traffic on Peachtree Road northwest of the Lenox-Phipps Plaza megaplex. Take-out is definitely an option. Most food items can be packed to travel. Given the difficulties of the busy, hard-to- navigate parking lot, however, you'll do just as well to eat on site before confronting half-a-dozen aggressive double parkers a second time.

Terra's ambience is soothing and, given the open-grill kitchen jutting into the room, comparatively calm and quiet. Blond wood accents and tables, modern drop light fixtures, brushed metal and blond-wood chairs, garden-art metalwork, framed French photographs and unusual ceramic relief maps provide chic eye candy to enjoy while waiting — not long — for plates to be delivered by runners.

Orders are given at the near end of the service counter. Payment is made, and beverages selected and self-served, farther along. Tables are set and cleaned by the runners. Tips are expected. The well- dressed clientele, as well as the neatly uniformed, helpful staff, keep their voices down.

The menu is divided into burgers, sandwiches with grilled ingredients, salads (including a couple of soups) and dinner entrees. Ginger and herb-crusted salmon with wasabe-spiked mashed potatoes and buttery tarragon-lobster sauce (the latter can be served on the side) is quite delicious and reasonably priced ($13.95). A sandwich version on a multi-grain bun with a light yogurt-dill sauce, tomato, lettuce and onion is just as good ($6.95). A cardboard-like junior Angus burger last week was dryer than the buffalo ($4.50).

Flame-grilled, farm-raised buffalo, promoted as a house specialty, comes in two comparable versions, an 8-Ounce ribeye steak ($18.95) and a burger with homemade barbecue sauce ($6.50). Both are seasoned, pleasantly undersalted but not remotely ready for prime time. Even when ordered medium rare, Terra's take on low-cholesterol buffalo comes out on the dry side. For the money, the burger is preferable to the relatively juiceless steak.

Items to try beyond the salmon steak and sandwich (no flame grilling, in other words) include salmon and pasta in vodka sauce ($7.25), sauteed mixed mushrooms and pasta with sour cream ($12.95) and various combination salads.

Most items include one or two sides. French fries, creamy potato salad and hydrogenated slaw are not options. Instead, choose from eda mame (fresh soybeans), a small salad of baby greens, dry-roasted potatoes or low-fat chips. (The latter are similar to Asian shrimp crackers.) Dinner entrees come with a larger green salad and a choice of wasabe-spiked mashed potatoes, sauteed greens (both are yummy), spinach-tomato risotto or grilled mixed vegetables (squash and bell peppers when I skipped it). An extra side dish is $2.75. Pastries from Alon's Bakery will tempt those not cholesterol-challenged.

To survive, Terra Garden Grille's proprietors may want to work on two areas. A top priority should be to recalibrate grilling times, techniques, temperatures and marinades. Low-fat and healthy do not have to equal juicy-as-a-rock. Second, considering the number of women who patronize the restaurant, the men in charge (and the staff is almost entirely male) may want to reflect on the hyper masculinity of the menu. Most of the guy words are there — roasted, grilled, Cajun, Angus, caramelized, blackened, junior, burger, steak and mashed potatoes. There's hardly a steamed, poached or thin-sliced anything to be found.