For the past several months, I've been eating my way through the dining rooms of Atlanta's best restaurants to bring you this —- the AJC's Top 50 restaurants, listed alphabetically, for 2008. Since I can't do a whirlwind tour in just one night (what a night that would be), many spots are visited during the summer months. Because most of these dining rooms operate seasonal kitchens, some of the delectable goodies in the following capsules may not be available anymore. All the more reason to keep going back. Enjoy.
4th & Swift ****
621 North Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 678-904-0160.
The old Southern Dairies building behind City Hall East (which used to be Sears and Roebuck) —- unlike the rest of Atlanta —- boasts real loft space, and it's prime real estate for a restaurant; the B Building has sweeping space, loaded with room and character, and it's big enough for a bulldozer. Add a burgeoning neighborhood trying to make a comeback and a chef with a popular Atlanta pedigree and a restaurant is born: 4th & Swift. Jay Swift made his mark on Atlanta's dining scene as the executive chef of one of the city's most beloved Southern enclaves, South City Kitchen on Crescent Avenue. In the dairy's old engine room, this chef has created amid concrete beams and exposed brick a restaurant as open and interesting as the breadth of its space. He offers a farm-to-table concept with a tiered menu that starts with seasonal daily specials such as a chanterelle mushroom and garlic tart in a light, sweet maple-shallot dressing and moves to small plates of local heirloom tomato salad served with tangy, super creamy Vermont feta, olive oil and a sprinkling of pink Himalayan salt. Nothing is affected; everything is fresh, simply prepared and arrives happily at the table from a young, eager staff ready to please. It's hard to ask more of a restaurant. It's ridiculous to tout signature dishes of a restaurant that opened in mid-June, but Swift's Three Little Pigs is destined for that fate: a generous slice of pork loin alongside mild, German-style house-made pork sausage and a fat, juicy, succulent strip of pork belly, the three blissfully joined by a helping of rich, creamy, old-fashioned macaroni and cheese. First prize, hands down. First runner-up? Daintily seasoned braised lamb shoulder layered with sheets of house-made pasta and mushrooms with buttery-flavored ricotta cheese. Swift's seemingly sudden gentle touch with seasonings —- especially salt —- could make him the subtlest chef in the city. And what a blessing that is when it comes to summery sweet corn soup, where cream and corn collide in a bowl of velvety wonder, without ever getting heavy or overwrought, bedecked with a crispy fried oyster. Rarely does a restaurant open with as little fanfare as 4th & Swift —- in June, it seemed it was suddenly just here, nestled into its large space (the only conspicuous thing about it) as if it had always been: a born natural. 5:30-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays. $$-$$$
Antica Posta ****
519 E. Paces Ferry Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-262-7112.
The big yellow house on East Paces Ferry is the city's biggest exception to the unspoken Atlanta rule of rarely renovating an old house into a restaurant. But this kitchen cooks up great Tuscan meals from owner Marco Betti. The waiters are of the camp of seasoned professionals who call you "milady" and bring you sips of Muscato at the end of the meal. But it's the rustic Tuscan food that keeps this restaurant's reservations booked. Scallops have become a signature dish, sweetly seared and placed over a bed of savory chickpea puree as well as the duck ragu, with tender pulled meat, served over anything from tortelli stuffed with ricotta and spinach to farfalle. A chiffonade of rucola, served with shards of Parmigiana Reggiano, snaps with flavor, and there is always a fish of the day. Desserts seem a little old hat, and often lack the presence other courses here possess, so enjoy another super Tuscan from the formidable wine list and settle back for a pleasant evening. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Lunch: noon-3 p.m. Saturdays only. $$$
490 E. Paces Ferry Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-233-7673.
Lovely Aria beckons with beaded curtains, bejeweled dogs and colossal chandelier that looks like a neon mosquito is landing in the dining room. Eating here is as visual as it is visceral, and it's become a perennial favorite among Atlanta foodies and food neophytes alike. Why? Because chef-owner Gerry Klaskala always has had the ability to cast finesse into even the simplest of dishes, striking a synchronistic chord between hip and comfortable. From perfectly fried soft shell crab with a tangy napa slaw to smoked salmon served with classics of capers, minced red onion, creme fraiche and a crispy, light potato pancake, everything here is perfect. Wine by the glass from wine director Andre Loaiza was perfectly poured, and the desserts from Kat King —- a light lemon panna cotta with Bing cherries and her signature warm chocolate cheesecake with its familiar swirl of chocolate through the center are precious and wonderful —- easily among the best in the city. Seasonally accented Hudson Valley foie gras and heirloom Bulls Blood beets with goat cheese have become signatures, and fresh Georgia mountain trout is always interesting, though the able, seasoned staff will steer you toward the slow-roasted pork. 6-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. $$$$
1198 Howell Mill Road N.W., Atlanta. 404-365-0410, Ext. 22.
Bacchanalia has become the most celebrated restaurant in Atlanta, a rare five-star gem that has garnered national and international attention for its elegant yet easygoing attitude. One bite will tell you why: beautifully sourced ingredients (many from the chef-owners' own Summerland Farm in Cartersville), well-procured meats prepared in-house, the finest larder of cheese in the city and fresh fish make for rare and fresh finds on your dinner plate. Amid modern, warm tones and warehouse chic, chef-owners Clifford Harrison and Anne Quatrano, along with chefs Daniel Porubiansky and Joshua Hopkins, cook with easygoing personality and an understated sense of flair. Flavors coax, then lull you into submission. Daily menu changes make it hard to play favorites, but look for silkiness in every bite of soft, sexy sheep ricotta gnudi; or a pork trio of country pate, rillette and subtly flavored loin. The cheese course shouldn't be missed, and you can expect everything from lusciously gooey Epoisses de Bourgogne to boldly tart Kenny's Kentucky Blue from Barren County, Ky. Late summer desserts may bring heady offerings of peach souffle with chamomile ice cream or cherry parfait with smooth vanilla cream and Balsamic vinegar. Star Provisions, the restaurant's excellent storefront, easily does what so many have tried and failed at, offering prime ingredients from the menu to buy for yourself. Dinner: 6-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. $$$$$
Beleza Restaurant and Lounge ***
905 Juniper St., Atlanta. 678-904-4582.
Passion is a large element of the unpredictable, and in that sense Beleza delivers on all accounts —- the offerings are beautiful, unexpected and, here's the kicker, good for you. Shhhh. Don't tell anyone. Inspired by trips to Brazil, owner Riccardo Ullio (who is Italian) has brought to Juniper Street a small space with a very big personality. At once it offers some of the best culinary cocktails doubled with a menu inspired by Brazil, but certainly not beholden to it. Dishes with imprudent names such as "forbidden rice" are easy to poke fun at until you taste it: Made with Chinese forbidden black rice, it has a deeply nutty flavor, gorgeous dark purple color and rests on arugula pesto with bits of African squash and cashews. Like everything else on the menu, it's not just another pretty face. Yet Beleza is a groovy Brazilian joint, too, with mod zebra wood tables, drop lighting and a 150-square-foot wall with hydroponic tropical plants sprouting from it that in addition to looking like something out of a Roger Vadim film also oxygenate the air. If you listen closely, you might hear strains of Stan Getz in the background, crooning out some samba on the saxophone. The most Brazilian thing about Beleza (which means "beauty" in Portuguese) is the bar. The drinks here are fresh, full-flavored masterpieces: an acerola (a tart, tropical tree cherry with a bijillion doses of vitamin C in one serving) mojito, sweetened with agave nectar and the usual lime and mint, is the best I've had in Atlanta. A Key lime-and-coconut caipirinha made with coconut-infused cachaca needs to be listed with the government as a controlled substance. Batidas (think Latin smoothies) and fresh sodas such as passion fruit and pomegranate are alcohol alternatives. OK, so Beleza is a restaurant with exquisite culinary cocktails, flavorful natural foods and a Brazilian accent. With it, Ullio has a real beauty on his hands. 5:30-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5:30 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays. Lounge open until 2 a.m. $$-$$$
Bistro VG ***
70 W. Crossville Road, Roswell. 770-993-1156.
Restaurateurs Chris and Michele Sedgwick didn't build their OTP dynasty of popular places —- Aspen's, Vinny's, Theo's Brother's Bakery, Pure Taqueria and Van Gogh's —- without taking a few risks. They closed Van Gogh's, redesigned it, then reopened later with a new name, Bistro VG, a new look and a new menu that touts a fresh take on modern French food (and the OTP essentials of wood-fired pizzas and pasta, of course). The look is country French, and expansive brick walls have been splashed bright with off white, one adorned with a painting of clouds and blue sky. The ecru-painted floors give way to tables adorned with farmhouse linens, each thread as different as a snowflake. The bar sports a communal table that flanks a pebble-studded fireplace. The menu is approachably French with lots of loose interpretation, from charcuterie plates of salami and prosciutto to offerings of pate with brown mustard and cornichons to tarte tatin. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays (with small plates from 2:30-5 p.m. in the bar and lounge). Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$
Blu Greek Taverna ***
26 Mill St., Marietta. 770-429-4096.
Blu looks as if it were airlifted from the coast of the Adriatic —- dramatic silk screens of Mediterranean vistas take you beyond the restaurant's walls to a place in your imagination that is warm and sweet, with scents of citrus, sea and salt. The very real smell of kokinisto, a rich, tomato-y beef stew, will bring you back to Marietta. The menu reads like a textbook of all things Greek —- flambeed saganaki, triangles of salty feta with fat Kalamata olives drizzled in oil, dolmades, tangy avgolemono soup, moussaka. The wine list continues, even after promises to the contrary, to offer two listings: red or white. But there is no need for novelty here, and you won't find it. Blu's pretty facade dresses things up in comfortable fashion, but it is really just an honest neighborhood tavern, filled with earnest food that encompasses some of Greece's most beloved dishes. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. daily. $$
3130 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-237-2663.
There is no other steakhouse like it in Atlanta: The testosterone-charged atmosphere, the prime steaks, the innate timing of the seasoned wait staff, the old-school attitude of the kitchen —- like an old standard, they're what Comden and Green would have drummed up had they been restaurateurs instead of Tony-winning songwriters. The steaks remain things of glory, with their crispy-black char surfaces, fine grain and man-sized portions. A la carte sides of colossal shrimp cocktail, the grit fritter and hash browns are menu must-haves. The front room still dons caricatures of famous-and-forgotten Atlantans, and the wine list is deep and expensive, though you may find yourself ordering a Tom Collins just for the heck of it. Scotch is a must. This place isn't sooo five minutes ago; it's ageless. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. daily. $$$$
C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar ***
3240 Cobb Parkway, Atlanta. 770-272-0999.
Owners Rich Clark and Jon Schwenk have created in C&S Seafood and Oyster Bar a brasserie-style restaurant that's a little lower Manhattan and a little Boca Raton. The interior has a lush-life look to it, even though it's small, narrow and planted in the corner of a strip mall off Cobb Parkway. The decor is brooding in spots, brassy in others. This classic fish house is a refreshing change from Atlanta's usual steak-and-sushi gig: You might get big-boy portions of raw oysters and cherrystone clams, classic cocktails such as pisco sours, a variety of fish from arctic char to rainbow trout flown in fresh daily, steaks and sides of spinach with olive oil and garlic. All are reminders of the grand steak and fish houses of the early 20th century, and C&S proves its mettle when it comes to making simple preparations like broiled or chargrilled fish with sides of roasted fingerling potatoes and haricot verts into big, bold plates of beauty. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Fridays; 5 p.m.-midnight Saturdays; 5-10 p.m. Sundays. $$$
Cakes & Ale ***
254 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-377-7994.
Former Watershed sous chef Billy Allin and wife Kristin have sculpted a handsome place to gather and eat, sparsely decorated, but highlighted by an inviting bar, a fresh, seasonal menu and a wine list that is quite possibly the best while most affordable in town. Window boxes brim with fresh herbs, and welcoming afternoon light streams through the windows. Cakes & Ale is a neighborhood spot destined to become a destination. And of course, there are the phatty cakes. They sit pristinely under a glass cake stand on the bar, as if jettisoned there by Martha herself, perfectly stacked into a pretty pyramid. What are they? Pastry chef Cynthia Wong makes ginger-laced cookie cakes, soft and pillowy, and fills them with a dreamily fluffy and tangy mascarpone buttercream. Allin comes by his simple approach honestly: He graduated from California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and spent an internship at famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Add an Italian grandmother, and a winning mix for a right-minded, seasonal chef was made. He admits openly that the blackboard menu of daily specials springs from a craving of whatever he wants to eat that day and often offers the most interesting of goodies: House-made brawn (Allin is a do-it-yourself disciple of seasonal and sustainable), though a little too jellied, was still a meaty delight spread on brioche toast. The butter lettuce from Allin's garden produces the freshest, most scrumptious salad, lightly tossed in vinaigrette, I've ever eaten. Just lettuce, dressed in a bit of splendid tartness. Talk about virtuous. Away from the blackboard, the main menu offers items that are sure to become signatures. Arancini are moist, deep-fried Sicilian rice balls served playfully in a papered cone like fair food, seasoned with hints of citrus and fennel pollen. Shoestring fries, hot from the fryer, are remarkable. Allin makes his own pickles (sometimes spicy mixed vegetables, other times bread-and-butters), and in warmer months they accompany a trio of traditionally made deviled eggs. 5:30-10:30 p.m. Tuesdays—-Saturdays. Bar open until midnight Thursdays-Saturdays. $$$
The Chocolate Bar ***
201 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-378-0630.
Chef Nick Ruthorford may have moved on to open his own spot (see New and Notable on Page XX) in L5P, but chef Aaron Russell still teams with owner and former nurse Karen Britain to create the area's very own reason for eating dessert first. A small space is bathed in warm wood tones (very chocolaty), there's a small bar and even tables to sit outside on Decatur's main drag, West Ponce de Leon. If life were perfect, this is how we should eat all the time. CB was one of the first in the area to offer a "culinary cocktail," so named because it borrows an element from the kitchen as well as the bar —- the refreshing watermelon "bellini" is like drinking a fizzy piece of super-sweet, ripe watermelon topped with sparkling cava or champagne. Cooler weather brings gluwein, a spicy German mulled wine that's soul warming to its last sip. Or choose a wine from the more than happy selection that's short, but deep —- then move to nibbles of well-procured charcuterie and cheeses. But save room for what's really important —- dessert. Don't look for homey, fudgy, sloppy or gooey here. And don't try this at home. These lovely selections are delicately made, easy on the eyes and full with flavor —- the triple threat in pastry arts. They change often, but look for dark chocolate souffles with white chocolate ganache and a silky milk sorbet called "Oreos and cream," or the most velvety cup of hot chocolate on the planet. $$
905 Juniper St., Atlanta. 678-904-4584.
Riccardo Ullio's latest venture, Cuerno, may be his most ambitious yet, and certainly the most rewarding from a diner's perspective (that's saying something, since Sotto Sotto, his Italian spot in Inman Park, is among Atlanta's best). An enclave of Spanish cooking, Cuerno is the only one of its kind in the city, and the food, from talented, young Ken Bouche (who goes back and forth from Cuerno to Beleza, next door), is close to exquisite. The restaurant embodies the bohemian spirit of Barcelona, even if many of the dishes, like paella, are from elsewhere. Ullio freely admits that he loves Spanish food as much as his native Italian, and Cuerno seems a culmination of his greatest dreams. In some ways the menu seems an introduction for those unfamiliar with Spanish dishes. But Bouche's execution of it is a deep interpretation that rings authentic and true. Dishes from la plancha (a griddle) are among the best, from giant gambas (prawns) to pillowy scallops drenched in olive oil and garlic, as are the on-again-off-again menu items of brandada, a tapas offering, and cochinillo confitado —- pulled meat from a suckling pig roasted with apples and pistachios. The pork is ethereally crusted and caramelized on its surface, giving way to a moist, savory meat. The wine list is sexier-than-sexy Spanish, a cuisine long overlooked on the Atlanta dining scene. Antique tiles brought from Italy and a life-size iron bull sculpture (cuerno means "horn") are highlights of the small space enhanced by low lighting and strains of Spanish guitar. Amid a menu of classics such as patatas bravas and bacalao is a sensuous splash of cava served from a Catalonian-style porron. What's more romantic than drizzling sparkling wine into your mouth from the spout of this glass genie's lamp? Enjoy with a spoonful of crema Catalana, Spain's answer to creme brulee. The smells, the sounds, the tastes; this adventure is a sensual treat. 5:30-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays. 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays. Bar open later on weekends with tapas. $$$
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead *****
3434 Peachtree Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-237-2700.
Executive chef Arnaud Berthelier's menu exudes a playful, modern approach to the many cuisines it encompasses. Helming the Dining Room's pristine open kitchen, the two-time James Beard nominee is director, scriptwriter, actor —- and his offerings are as lively as ever. An evening here is always perfect, and can begin with a glass of champagne and an amuse bouche of velvety white asparagus soup with a lemon chantilly cream and a hint of orange, but move quickly to selections from a prix fixe menu (scaled down this summer from five courses to three) or choices from the a la carte menu. Coca-Cola-glazed brisket is tender and sweet —- a modern, flirty rendition of a Southern favorite perched over collard greens. Cantaloupe "carpaccio" appears as thin slices of super ripe melon with miniature langoustine tails and fresh lychee nuts poached in sweet syrup. Yes, the hunt club portraits, Oriental silks and continental feel of the decor profess otherwise, but the staff remains buoyant and steadfast —- many have been with the Dining Room for years. Maitre d'hotel Claude Guillaume and sommelier Robert Evans have proven to be among the best in the city; Evans is ever-ready to offer pairing suggestions that veer from the offerings on the menu. An extensive wine list remains a thing of beauty, and the cheese and friandise carts make the meal like no other in the city. Yet it is Berthelier's festive mood that elevates the attitude of the staff, his script of dish after incredible dish that provides the soul of the performance, and his presence in the Dining Room as the meal closes that proves he considers himself just another member of the ensemble. 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 6-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$$$
40 Seventh St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-347-9555.
It's hard to argue with the success of this charming, sophisticated restaurant. The kitchen seems to value freshness and sourcing, a fact most evident in the offerings of charcuterie and fine cheeses that should be made into the meat of any meal here. Signatures of fried goat cheese with honey and gorgonzola ice cream round out the best of a flawed, but fun, menu that's best when not taking itself too seriously, as in a luscious slice of wood-grilled eggplant pizza, or silky ribbons of pappardelle with chile-braised pork. The wine list has deep options from old and new world selections, and the dining room staff is competent and informed; what they can't answer they'll find out. Bar and patio opens daily at 4 p.m. Dinner: 5:30-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30-11 p.m. 5:30 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays. $$$
Eclipse di Luna ***
764 Miami Circle N.E., Atlanta. 404-846-0449.
The crowds keep coming to this funkily fun Miami Circle tapas destination. Is it the mojitos? Absolutely. But truth be told, there's a darned good tapas menu lurking beneath that glass of muddled mint and rum. Slide your drink over and check it out: Standards such as patatas bravas —- decadent, crisp-edged potatoes with spicy Romesco sauce —- and fried calamari with chunks of spicy fresh tomatoes pack a peppery punch. In a riff of Spanish meat mania, serrano is served with chorizo and pork loin alongside peppy roasted peppers and olives, while mussels deliciously rep things from the sea. Even a simple serving of grilled asparagus spears with shards of nutty manchego is as good as it gets, and it can get crazy, especially on a Friday or Saturday night. Belly up to the bar and get used to it. That's what the mojitos are for. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays. Dinner only: 5-10 p.m. Sundays and Mondays. $$$
Five and Ten ****
1653 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-546-7300.
This funky spot, a short walk from the UGA campus and just over an hour from Atlanta, is how the term "destination" began to get bandied about in relation to restaurants. It's fast becoming one of the South's greatest reasons to visit Athens. Owner Hugh Acheson, twice-nominated for the James Beard award, is the perfect chef: He cooks with energy and invention, and values ingredients above all else. Even more important, he's not afraid to fall flat on his face with a little experimentation from time to time. The restaurant thrives on a low-key Southern vibe with an edgy, seasonal take on freshness. Frogmore stew, loaded with fat Tybee Island shrimp, fingerling potatoes, corn and spicy andouille in a soulful tomato broth, has become a signature. The pickle plate is a Southern marvel and shouldn't be missed —- each sweet-and-sour bite is made in-house, from bread and butter to pickled okra. Acheson flash-fries veal sweetbreads, dusted in cormeal, to perfection and offers them with a custard of Red Mule grits, from an Athens mill. Along with the discreetly elegant desserts, like pear crostada or sticky date pudding, and a staff that cares about what's going on in the kitchen, Five and Ten is a sweet reminder of everything that's right about Southern cooking. The wine list is plenty friendly, with excellent bottles between $30 and $50. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5:30-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Brunch: 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sundays. $$$
Floataway Cafe ****
1123 Zonolite Road N.E., Suite 15, Atlanta. 404-892-1414.
While Floataway Cafe's streamlined menu of farm-fresh ingredients brought together in a just-this-side of southern France and Italy persuasion has always wowed, it was hard to make friends with this restaurant's interior. Instead of opening another eatery, Atlanta's most famous chefs decided to completely renovate this little restaurant that could. In doing so, they've created a new restaurant. Early last fall, they unveiled the almost half-million dollar results: a brand-new jewel box of a bar area bathed in cool green tea and robin's egg blue colors has been created. It serves almost as a foyer for the newly minted dining room beyond its border, bathed in earth tones with a center family-style table enhanced with a massive chandelier made simply of sinewy, yet oh-so-elegant, sticks. Designer Dominick Coyne's new rooms give the feel of a breezy beach house mingled with the mountains; the shiny chrome bar is crowned with vases of fresh, long-stemmed flowers and wicker chairs (though still difficult to maneuver) add to the relaxed mood. Add to these major changes minor touch-ups in the original dining areas —- new lighting over the tables and partitions and flowing sheers that exude a private room feel. The outcome is that Floataway Cafe, once denounced for its cold shoulder, will charm your socks off. The food was never an issue anyway, but now the couple has stepped aside to give the restaurant's chef de cuisine, Drew Belline, full credit in the kitchen. The pizzas, wood-fired and crisp-crusted, are the best in the city. Local, seasonal ingredients such as lady apples and North Georgia mountain trout are a given. The cheese selection, harvested from Star Provisions ample larder, is among the finest in Atlanta. And desserts and cocktails bear the mark of a staff devoted to the kitchen's slow food style. 6-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. $$$
French American Brasserie ****
30 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd., Suite 125, Atlanta. 404-266-1440.
The good news about FAB (French American Brasserie) is that the food is, on most levels, better than Brasserie Le Coze. The skate wings are crisper, saltier and even bolder than before, scrumptious in their brown butter sauce with fat Pantellerian capers. The profiteroles are the French answer to a Dairy Queen dream: plump and filled with nutty pistachio ice cream, drenched in Valrhona chocolate sauce and tons of fun to make a mess with. The sweetbreads are preciously plump, soft-centered works of art delicately placed over whipped potatoes graced with mushrooms and surrounded by a pool of black truffle sauce, topped with micro greens. Watercress salad is fresh, bright and perfect for lunch with an equally good assiette of cheese that includes manchego, pecorino de tartufo and soft, luscious brie de meaux. Couple all this with a completely approachable wine list that also offers deep options. Owner Fabrice Vergez is smart enough to know that there was no way to move downtown into a developing space such as Ivan Allen Plaza and keep the old Brasserie. Not only is the space more than twice the size and a complete departure from the old, the menu includes additions such as a large offering of steaks, chops, shellfish and oysters along with Brasserie favorites like the escargot and mushroom soup. Cleverly, there is no stone unturned —- the convention crowds will have no trouble finding something to like at FAB, and regulars will find their favorites, too. And rooftop dining here offers a grand view of the city's ever-expanding skyline. Too bad the dining room —- large and overstated —- lacks the personality the brasserie menu begs for. But never mind. Picking over every little detail here is like complaining that George Clooney is too short. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$-$$$$
The Hil ***
9110 Selborne Lane, Suite 110, Palmetto. 770-463-6040.
To truly experience the Hil at Serenbe (the farm community just south of Atlanta in Palmetto), it's best to take it with Serenbe as a whole, rather than piecemeal. A lovely place to eat, it's owned by husband-and-wife team Jim and Hilary White (who paved a pretty path for herself in the Buckhead Life restaurant group as executive chef for 103 West). Much of the menu relies on the farm, and the rustically upscale surroundings and decor, by designer Stan Topol, are so inviting that you may want to move in. White is mindful of keeping things simple, though at times this seems like necessity rather than invention —- antipasti of a robust caponata, olives and cured meats of coppa ham, saucisson sausage and a simple, slightly spicy salami seem a little lonely served with a mild, firm tomme cheese from Sweet Grass Dairy. Her charms work best with vegetables and meats. A steak with fries is manly and satisfying, and braised Berkshire pork shoulder has the luminous qualities that meat, braised well, always possesses: almost candied around the edges with caramelization, the center meat pulls apart with practically no effort, making it part roast, part barbecue sans sauce, delicately seasoned with sherry vinegar, thyme and bay leaf. Served with cabbage and an apple jus reduction, it's a fine, hardy meal for cool fall weather. But it's her summer and early fall vegetables, such as a succotash of lima beans, corn and okra, mostly from Serenbe Organic Farms, that are good enough for center-of-the-plate status. Latent is perhaps the best way to describe the Hil —- underneath a mantle of simple pleasures lies a kitchen with tons of possibility. Coupled with a starry night at Serenbe, the pairing is hard to resist. Dinner: 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Brunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $$-$$$
Holeman & Finch Public House ***
2277 Peachtree Road, Suite B, Atlanta. 404-948-1175.
It's an impending sign of the times: Meat is hot. Not filet and ribeye; strip and tenderloin. Souse. Sweetbreads. Marrow. Alternative meats. The British invasion is happening all over again, but this time it's brawn, not the Beatles, crossing the Atlantic. The gastropub movement that started with Britain's famed Eagle has a strong hoofhold in the States these days, and with it comes menus rife with rillette. Linton Hopkins, the chef-owner of Buckhead's bastion of Southern cuisine, Restaurant Eugene, has decided to capitalize on two things he is very, very good at: creating and riding a trend until it becomes a way of eating; and making everything from scratch. Put the two together and an idea begins to germinate. Add four other professionals from the restaurant industry —- Hopkins' wife and sommelier, Gina; and bartenders Andy Minchow, Greg Best and Regan Smith —- and the concept hatches: a public house, where everyone, including industry professionals getting off work late looking for a bite, can find a comfortable seat and a well-made meal. Small, tidy and bedecked with hanging house-cured hams, salumi and pork bellies, Holeman & Finch is not for the meat meager. The five have created the perfect British gastropub, with a very heavy Southern accent. The menu has small bites, all of which are heavy. Eating here is like a culinary expedition to meatville, especially pork —- crispy fried pork ears and tails come with a sweet and sour barbecue sauce; lovely gratin of bone marrow is spread deliciously over the restaurant's impeccably good country bread. Georgia greens are dressed just right and sent from the kitchen with hog jowl and tender, savory roasted veal sweetbreads. And then there's the souse. This isn't the gelatinous, head-cheesy mess pig's head usually ends up as —- this is tender meat boiled with a seasoned broth, then mixed with capers and house-made mustard and a bit of hard boiled egg and topped with bread crumbs from the house-made hamburger buns. There are more familiar options: a thick, juicy slice of pork belly rests over creamy grits with a bit of pickle and sweetly charred onion. Bacon drenched in sorghum syrup is served over a poached egg over Johnny cakes. The bar list is as creative as the rest of the menu, and after 10 p.m., the kitchen offers "industry" burgers to the gang getting off work —- order fast or by 10:06 they'll be gone. There are no reservations; just walk in and take a seat (if you can find one). 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Brunch: 12:30-3 p.m. Sundays. $$
JCT Kitchen ****
1198 Howell Mill Road, Atlanta. 404-355-2252.
Everything about chef-owner Ford Fry's Southern restaurant works. He has taken the fundamentals of great French bistro cooking and done with it what all gifted Southern cooks do: add fresh, seasonal ingredients and cook great food. The restaurant, located at Westside Urban Market in the spot where first Commune, then Sampan crashed and burned, was created by Smith Hanes Design, with an interior completely transformed. Open to light, the walls are bathed in muted tones of khaki; a farm table in the center of the room is home to a server's station stacked with flatware wrapped in blue-and-white dish towels used as napkins and big glass pitchers of water. The menu boasts of farmstead cooking, and Fry lives up to the interpretation with fried chicken that rivals Watershed, chicken and dumplings that looks and tastes suspiciously (and deliciously) like coq au vin, shrimp and grits, deviled eggs topped with Benton's country ham and desserts such as a rum-sopped coconut cake (think Southern tres leches) and soft, warm gingerbread with richly tart lemon curd that are fast becoming some of the best sweets in the city. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-9 Sundays. Bar open later Tuesdays-Saturdays. $$$
3290 Northside Parkway N.E., Atlanta. 404-233-3500.
Joel closed to remodel last year, reopening dramatically with a massive reworking that literally cut the former space in half, but keeps the fabulous checkered banquettes and giant orange-and-red tile wall that separates the kitchen from the dining area. The former bar —- and alas, gorgeous bathrooms —- are gone. And so is James Beard award-winning chef-owner Joel Antunes, another of the city's greatest lost to the Big Apple. Chef de cuisine Cyrille Holota, Antunes' right hand man for nearly 18 years, now cooks the restaurant's magically modern French cuisine. Keeping slightly less subtle portions than before, Holota charms with beautifully manicured and more approachable dishes, like a deconstructed tomato tart layered with luscious fresh tomatoes, or plump, seared sardines and ratatouille. The menu does hold onto some of Antunes' best signatures: the melt-in-your-mouth mango pavlova; the chilled Andalusian gazpacho crowned with an elegant quenelle of bright-tasting tomato sorbet. And the restaurant keeps Antunes' name. Service is more down to earth and comfortable than it has ever been, and the wine list is a gorgeous tome. Perrine Prieur is the prettiest and most passionate sommelier in the city —- she moves like a ballet dancer through the room, making suggestions and offering tastes, putting diners at ease. The restaurant is an oasis of delightfully unpredictable French cuisine, with lots of Mediterranean and Asian influences, and deserves to keep its well-earned fifth star. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. $$$
Kevin Rathbun Steak ****
154 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-524-5600.
It only stands to reason that Rathbun —- raised in Kansas City with a penchant for cooking approachable cuisine and an Atlanta pedigree that includes the Buckhead Life group and his own growing family of popular restaurants (Rathbun's, Krog Bar) —- might, just might, decide to open a steakhouse. The no-way-this-could-fail idea must have been irresistible to the chef we love to love. And while the menu indeed caters to the carnivorous, the most surprising and perhaps pleasing thing about Kevin Rathbun Steak is that someone who doesn't eat meat could find plenty to eat —- and like —- about it. Portion sizes, as expected, are generous. Sides of crispy, light fried okra (with Rathbun's pleasing remoulade) and a cute crock of scalloped sweet potatoes intermingled with Gruyere cheese are reason enough to not order steak. The two-inch-thick prime steaks are beautiful, though the crown for best in the city still belongs to Bones. Gorgeous nonetheless, they certainly put in a grand showing for close second. 5:30-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30-11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$$
3085 Piedmont Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-262-0702.
Year after year this restaurant continues to set the gold standard for the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, and chef Pano Karatassos, son of the Buckhead Life founder, strikes the right notes of homey authenticity and gourmet finesse with everything that comes from the kitchen. Kyma screams "special occasion," though any meal here will be exactly that. The menu offers what reads like a hit list of your favorite pop songs: big beautiful fish, deboned at the table; crisply seasoned Greek potatoes, sprinkled with a dusting of tangy kefalotiri cheese; sweet, thick imported honey over creamy Greek yogurt: baby calamari so sweet and delicate it melts in your mouth after one quick chew. Spare ribs drip from the bone drenched in oregano and pepper. All these, plus a royal atmosphere drenched in blue and white, and regal treatment from the seasoned staff will make you feel as pampered as a kitty cat. Save room, desserts such as galaktoboureko, a mesmerizing mix of semolina custard wrapped in phyllo, are perhaps the best course of all, and its genius is to offer them in a trio of small bites so that favorites don't have to be chosen. 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$$
La Oaxaquena Taqueria ***
6738 Tara Blvd., Jonesboro. 770-960-3010.
There is no other Mexican food in Atlanta quite like the soul food served up at this divey taqueria in Jonesboro. These Oaxacan wonders are the stuff cravings are made of: Tlayudas, the giant, hand-shaped corn tortillas topped with savory beans and spicy chorizo, strings of queso fresco and fresh avocado, with loads of lettuce, tomato and fresh salsas dipped up from a steam table. Or thick gorditas filled with goat meat and beans. The tamales, corn-husk wrapped or in banana leaves, are perhaps the best on the planet, stuffed with musky masa and shredded chicken and served with spicy red sauce or piquante green sauce. If you don't speak Spanish, don't worry —- just point to what you want on the menu and it will magically appear. 8 a.m.-11:30 p.m daily. $
L'Thai Fine Organic Cuisine & Wine Bar ***
4880 Lawrenceville Highway,
Suites 14-15, Tucker. 770-491-9948.
Between the happy grunts and satisfied ummphs that occur during the course of a meal at L'Thai, it's safe to guess that most everyone hasn't a clue how well-sourced owner Pithya "Pete" Kongthavorn's organic vegetables and meats are. Even the area's best restaurants rarely focus on organics and sustainability at this level. But for area foodies on the prowl for their next find, the restaurant has become a destination. The flavors here come alive: in tom kha, silken and hot with coconut milk and peppered with bright cilantro, all highlighted by unimaginably fresh tofu; and in nham sod, spicy with peppers, ginger and minced pork as well as other classic dishes. Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; noon-10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $$
Lime Taqueria ***
4600 W. Village Place, Smyrna. 678-309-1113.
It would be easy to focus simply on the word "taqueria" in regard to Lime Taqueria, a pretty new restaurant in West Village Place: Lime doesn't look like a taqueria, and the menu is clearly one that goes beyond small tacos. Blimey, Lime isn't a taqueria at all. First, there's the digs, and that starts with limes. Big, ceramic slices of them line the partition that separates the bar from the dining room, like a funky lime romper room. The candlelit tables are flanked with a couple of palm trees, the walls bathed in bright green and yellow, giving the room a breezy, but sophisticated feel. Then there's the service, which is hardly the handout version you'd get at a small joint that serves tacos and other antojitos. Here, seasoned servers bring big, salty margaritas sloshing around in beautiful Mexican glassware. They remove flatware with each course, and the food is presented artfully on clear glass plates. But the real reason Lime Taqueria is not a taqueria is chef Oscar Mendivil's menu, which is in Spanish (with English descriptions) and throws around terms like antojitos loosely, using it to describe small plates (also referred to as "tapas" —- eek). The menu over-reaches in spots —- pernil, a classic Puerto Rican dish Mendivil gives a Michoacan twist doesn't have the crunchy, outer caramelization that gives way to pulled pink flesh that pork shoulder slow roasted for hours should have, and sauteed spinach and tomato "jam" overpower its timid flavor. But Lime Taqueria tries hard, and its smaller portions —- an array of tacos, tamales and rarely seen goodies such as asado de panela (a grilled cheese without the bread, served here with sweet, smoky, roasted poblanos) —- prove out. It's in little snacks like gorditas —- thick masa cakes stacked with savory beef, tomatoes, queso cotijo and a splendidly smoky roasted tomatillo salsa surrounded by squiggles of cilantro "pesto" —- where big flavor bursts through. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-9 p.m. Sundays. Sunday brunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. $$
MF Buckhead *****
3280 Peachtree Road, Suite 110, Atlanta. 404-841-1192.
MF Buckhead is nestled quietly into the Terminus Building amid a lot of loudly decked out neighbors —- Bricktops and Aquaknox are next door; Lola is directly across the pavilion. By contrast, this restaurant is easy to walk past without realizing it's there. It doesn't need to be brash —- proof is in the pudding, or in MF's case, fish. Before the restaurant opened its sister in Midtown, owned and operated by brothers Chris and Alex Kinjo, was the best sushi restaurant in the area —- a small, quiet, stylish spot more like what might be found in Japan. But MF Buckhead has done something that no other restaurant in Atlanta has ever done on such a grand scale. Its 8,000 square feet of jaw-dropping space has finally —- and successfully —- combined the big, bold Buckhead look that Atlanta loves with an absolutely incomparable dining experience. No detail —- from the perfect thickness of the wooden chopsticks to the amazing sake list —- has been ignored. From the earthy, exotic stoneware (imported from Japan) at the table to the stacked walnut flooring, the restaurant exudes elegance and grace. Movable silk panels separate tables; the sushi bar spans the length of the main dining room and boasts 12 to 15 sushi chefs during busy hours. An omakase (tasting menu) room Bis sequestered upstairs near a quiet lounge. Sake labels are amassed in glass in the bar for a textured, colorful, exotic effect, and Ikebana masters Hiroshi and Elaine Jo's floral masterpieces add even more elegance. Toward the end of the sushi bar is a robata grill —- the first in Atlanta —- where specialties like King Atlantic prawns and succulent Japanese black cod marinated in a sweet miso sauce until translucent and caramelized are prepared. But it is the sushi bar —- and incredibly fresh fish cut perfectly —- that is the beating heart of this restaurant. Tucked away at a quiet table is a calming, even romantic, way to while away an afternoon —- but the bar is where the action is. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:15 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 6-10:15 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 6-11:15 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$$
931 Monroe Drive, Suite A-101, Atlanta. 404-541-9997.
Alex and Chris Kinjo of MF Buckhead and MF Sushibar extend their flair from their native Japan to Vietnam, with Nam's hip, elegant menu of nouvelle Vietnamese cuisine. Flavors here are fresh, clean and thoughtful —- allowing for Vietnamese traditions while embracing an unmistakable modernity. Rice flour tamales (banh nam) are filled with pork, shrimp, then wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf and sprinkled with chile sauce; the shaking beef, with pepper and lime for dipping, is a thing of beauty, as is grilled Japanese eggplant bathed in scallion, ginger and fish sauce, and something as simple as lemongrass tofu. Bask in flowing, organza-like sheer panels between tables and a muted, modern atmosphere while the lovely waitresses treat you like royalty. Save room to sip the sweetness of Vietnamese coffee for dessert. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Dinner: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30- 10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$
The National ***
232 West Hancock Ave., Athens. 706-549-3450.
Hugh Acheson of Athens' Five and Ten is an unlikely candidate for culinary cloning. His restaurant is a local gem that's become a destination for the area —- quaint and charming with an inviting menu of Southern slanted dishes simply prepared and seasonally inspired. But his second Athens restaurant, the National, is hardly a duplicate of Five and Ten —- it's more like a little sister. The space is neatly carved into a spot next to the movie bistro Cine, with pleasant, unintimidating results. Large windows, a stylish bar and smooth gray walls give an aura of understated sophistication, while plastic tablecloths with floral patterns remind you of your grandmother's home. Acheson has placed Peter Dale, a self-made chef who has worked for years at Five and Ten, in charge of the National's kitchen. Dale spent time in Spain, working for fashionable La Broche in Madrid and a mom-and-pop joint in Zaragoza called La Lobera de Martin, where he developed a passion for the local cuisine and stellar ingredients —- two of Five and Ten's greatest assets. And it is the combination of Spanish and Mediterranean influences with local freshness that is the cornerstone of the National's offerings. Calling the concept tapas isn't just lip service to a worn trend; most of the dishes here are true Spanish tapas —- plates of just a few bites, no more, referred to as "snackies" on a short, well-planned menu. It's this area of cooking where Dale shines brightest: an offering of broiled Spanish chorizo (think pepperoni) is served in a cazuela with caramelized apple —- a tart, welcome contrast to the heady spiciness of the sausage. Dale's time in Spain is reflected in his preparation of patatas bravas —- practically the country's national dish and certainly its most famous tapas. Deep-fried potatoes, cut into chunks, are served with a snappy tomato-and-pepper sauce alongside rich aioli to balance the heat —- no different than any of the best in Barcelona. Medjool dates are tiny bites of bliss, lanced down the center and filled with thin slices of celery and nutty-flavored manchego cheese. Relaxed, easy-going. Harder to pull off than it sounds. And yet the National makes it look so easy. Continental breakfast: 8-11 a.m. in the bar. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays in the dining room and until 4 p.m. at the bar. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 6-9 p.m. family-style supper Sundays. Bar open later with small plates served. $$-$$$
Palomilla's Cuban Grill House ***
6470 Spalding Drive, Suite B, Norcross. 770-242-0078.
This little restaurant has a strange, intoxicating magic to it. When you eat here, it's not just the food —- which is hands down the best Cuban food in the Atlanta area —- that lulls you into submission. There is a strong sense of community here, and it's transcendent, as if that dish of grouper in salsa verde (a thin piece of tender fish in a creamy sauce of garlic and parsley, blanketed with three sauteed shrimp) came with its own white dove and olive branch. One bite, and everyone is happy. And fish isn't the only thing that will give you a sense of laissez-faire. Masas de cerdo, chunks of pork that are so tender they shred from the fork with the tiniest of nudges, is Palomilla's very own Happy Meal. Thick chunks of pork are marinated just enough to give flavor and juiciness, then are deep-fried and served with a Cuban mojo sauce and lime. Ropa vieja goes beyond the classic —- shreds of tender flank steak are drenched in a juicy sauce rife with garlic, cumin, bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and oregano that taste as if they've been stewing all day. Breakfast 7-10:30 a.m. daily. Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner 4-9 p.m. Monday-Thursdays; 4-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. $$
Penang Malaysian/Thai Cuisine - Chamblee ****
4897 Buford Highway, Suite 113, Chamblee. 770-220-0308.
The elusive flavor of lemongrass and fish rife with flat noodles can be found at only one restaurant in Atlanta: Penang. Laksa may exist elsewhere along the Buford Highway corridor, but Penang's is the only one that takes me back to Singapore, where assam and curried versions mingle in diversity. Diversity is what best describes Malaysian cuisine, a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian influences, as well as "nyonyan" —- the cooking style named for the daughters of elite families trained to cook by their mothers. Penang's menu embraces them all in one way or another. And once you start visiting Penang, a ritual will ensue: A meal should start with roti canai, an Indian-style curry rich with coconut, served in a small bowl with a bit of chicken and potato with soft, pliable Indian pancakes for dipping. Achar (on this menu spelled achat) should come next —- a mix of mildly pickled carrots, onions and cabbage seasoned with chiles, sesame and peanuts.
The Buford Highway location of Penang (another is in Kennesaw) opened as a branch of a New York chain, but its grungy tiki room atmosphere and large, glossy wooden tables don't feel like cookie cutter duplications. And Penang has long been the go-to source for real Malaysian cooking in the area. Get to know the fish on this all-encompassing menu: Most often red snapper, it's deep fried or steamed whole, and drenched in a variety of sauces, most notably assam sauce, made with fish paste and lemongrass, as well as tomatoes and okra. Crowned in a ring of fresh cilantro, this is one of Penang's greatest accomplishments —- sweet, sour, salty all distill to one, covering fleshy white tufts of fish. The menu can be a little overwhelming, but it is more easily navigated when you realize some of it is duplication. And items printed in red indicate a hot and spicy dish, though a good rule of thumb is that nothing in Malaysian food is as spicy as it is elsewhere in Asian cooking. Curries are milder, and even chiles, when used, are rarely five-alarm affairs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. $$
Pura Vida ****
656 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. 404-870-9797.
Smart, sexy Pura Vida is a classic example of a neighborhood fave becoming a destination rave. Nowhere in the area are there tapas like this —- chef-owner Hector Santiago infuses everything from his kitchen with true gourmet presence and lots of elBulli-esque style. Start with a Brazilian-inspired caipirinha or a cool flute of sparkling cava, then get down and dirty with papitas criollas a caballo —- a naughty bowl of aji-and-amarillo smashed Colombian gold potatoes crowned with a slow-cooked egg, garlic chips and grains of pretty pink Bolivian salt. Or go for the traditional flavors of a tamal verde en hoja, with barbecued chicken in soft, musky masa steamed in a cabbage husk accented with goat cheese espuma (foam) and a slightly spicy poblano sauce. The pace is brisk, not brusque, and the informed and dedicated staff will keep things coming for you all night. Large, colorful art originals dot the brooding walls, and the concrete floors seem to soak up the sounds of the crowd. 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30-11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 3:30-10 p.m. Sundays. Brunch: noon-3:30 p.m. Sundays.$$
Pure Taqueria ***
103 Roswell St., Alpharetta. 678-240-0023.
Part of Alpharetta's dining boom, Pure Taqueria is another addition to Chris and Michele Sedgwick's growing family of restaurants that include Bistro VG, Aspens, Theo's Brother's Bakery and Vinny's. Of them all, it is by far the best. In it lies the couple's fondness for Mexican culture and food, and eating here feels like a day at a Mexican beach —- the mood is relaxed, open and breezy. Ditto the short list of Mexican favorites that include excellent salsas and warm chips, queso fundido, fish tacos, ceviche and mean margaritas. The din of the crowd makes it almost impossible to hear yourself chew, but hey, the craziness is all part of the fun. Watch for more Pure to pop up soon: the Sedgwick Group has penned a deal to franchise their most popular restaurant across the Southeast. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Sundays (bar is open until 11 p.m.). $$
Quinones at Bacchanalia *****
1198 Howell Mill Road N.W., Atlanta. 404-365-0410.
This lovely restaurant, from Bacchanalia chef-owners Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, is a restaurant with a soulfulness that is at once sensuous and sexy, yet ever so ladylike: Audrey Hepburn mixed with a just a smattering of Sophia Loren. The kitchen takes a fresh, young approach to a prix fixe menu that could have drowned in its own soberness, but doesn't. Instead, seasonal offerings buoy dishes that speak with a slight Southern accent, and offer flavor as their driving force, with a focus on traditional ingredients from the Southeast rather than sticking strictly to conventionally Southern cooking styles. Chef de cuisine Andy Carson creates elegant dishes that roll ever so elegantly along with the seasons, whether it be milk-fed veal and crispy sweetbreads with house-cured bacon, or stuffed Georgia quail with chanterelled mushrooms. The entire meal can be paired with wines, each selection based on depth and heaviness, not just flavor. Quatrano sets the pace for the region, and if this is where Southern regional cooking is headed, we're in for a smooth ride. Dinner reservations: 6-8:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$$$
112 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-524-8280.
Kevin Rathbun's take on modern American cuisine makes his eponymous restaurant perhaps the most popular in the city. Here, Atlantans find what they love —- a sophisticated but completely accessible approach to dining out and a menu loaded with influences from the Southeast, Southwest and Rathbun's native heartland. Goodies like the kitchen's sea scallop Benedict over country ham grits and always-fun eggplant steak fries, cut thick, crisp-edged and covered in confectioner's sugar remain ever popular, while seasonal offerings of heirloom tomatoes with pear Balsamic vinegar and olive oil keep the menu updated and honest. Simple fried kefalatori cheese and salmon chips make for great starters, and the risotto du jour may be one of the kitchen's best kept secrets —- all proof that nobody here is trying to reinvent the wheel. Save room for pastry chef Kirk Parks' dessert samplers, one of the best in the city. Dinner: 5:30-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30-11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. (Bar opens at 5 p.m.). $$$
620 Glen Iris Drive, Atlanta. 404-870-8707.
The look is Chelsea evening in New York: rich avocado tones give way to an industrial, open space where wooden beams and low-lit candles offer texture and warmth. Repast looks smart yet is comfortable, and the menu chef-owners and husband-and-wife team Joseph Truex and Mihoko Obunai have crafted is a list of well-prepared, simple dishes that have classic bistro appeal. The medjool dates wrapped in bacon and stuffed with marcona almonds have become neighborhood legend, the kind of snack to pair with one of the excellent glasses of Bordeaux from Truex's comfortably formidable wine list. Octopus salad with watermelon paired with prosecco works too —- and is just as fun to eat at the bar as it is at a table. The menu is a showcase for the kind of smart cooking that comes from classical training paired with lots of time behind a busy kitchen line. The menu changes often to match the seasons, but there's always a stable of dishes that, while universally appealing, offer a little something more than the ordinary. 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30- 10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$
Restaurant Eugene ****
2277 Peachtree Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-355-0321.
Chef-owner Linton Hopkins has turned this lovely Buckhead gem into a four-star destination. From the lively, old-fashioned cocktail list to the well-sourced meats and vegetables, Hopkins cooks by the creed all chefs should: fresh, local, seasonal. His Sunday supper menu is a testament to the notion that Southern cooking neither be heavy nor pedestrian. Instead dishes such as cracklin' pork osso buco, a gorgeous shank crisped at the edges and fall-from-the-bone tender over Anson Mills grits, transcend their meager origins. Often he uses ingredients —- corn, okra, skillet greens —- to remind us of the South, but with a whole new attitude. He cooks with Allan Benton's bacon from Madisonville, Tenn., and shrimp from the Georgia coast, letting ingredients pop from the plate with calculated flavor; nothing appears happenstance. The menu changes often to reflect the seasons, but no matter what time of year, the food cultivates a genteel Southern accent, even if it's a plate of sliced Fuyu persimmon and Beenleigh blue cheese. On a menu full of top-notch ingredients, seasonal produce and gentle flavors always inspire but never offend the restaurant's dressy Buckhead crowd. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$$
Rexall Grill ***
3165 Buford Highway, Duluth. 770-623-8569.
Attached to the Rexall Pharmacy, this old-fashioned, soda fountain-style meat-and-two is legend in Gwinnett for some of the best home cookin' found away from home. Fresh okra is hand-cut, dredged through cornmeal and lightly fried; macaroni and cheese will bring back memories of your mother's checkered apron strings. Do not leave without trying the homemade peanut butter cake or the chocolate fudge. 5:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. 5:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturdays. $
Rumi's Kitchen ***
6152 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 404-477-2100.
Chef-owner Ali Mesghali, who was part-owner of nearby Persepolis, has branched out to take Persian offerings in the Atlanta area beyond the buffet and into something that smacks of tradition. Ancient tradition. For to truly experience the sweet-and-sour soulfulness of a mouthful of mast khiyar, one must first understand that Persia has played a central role in the development of world cuisine. Take note of that bite of badenjoon, baby. It's got history. Mast khiyar (diced cucumbers with yogurt, raisins, walnuts and herbs) is the perfect mate for the fresh-from-the-oven flatbread; mirza ghasemi (roasted eggplant with tomatoes and garlic) and dolmeh (ground beef, rice and herbs rolled into grape leaves) as well as kebobs and Iranian stews like badenjoon are staples of the varied menu. After dinner, dip into some Persian tea. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 3 p.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; noon-11 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $$-$$$
Sam & Dave's BBQ2 ***
660 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-792-2272.
This second location of the Pork University crowd's first, BBQ1, is just as good, if not better, with some of the best pulled pork and brisket in the area. The beans are smokier and sexier, with a sweet, brown sugary darkness, and the cole slaw still has that peppy, poppyseed-and-pineapple zip. The three-cheese macaroni 'n' cheese should be illegal. But it's the pork and beef barbecue that has the slow-smoked, striated, pink-ringed madness that turns men, women and children from polite, napkin-using, elbows-off-the-table types into crazed maniacs ready to kill for the closest wet nap. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $-$$
1029 Edgewood Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-577-4358.
In chef Shaun Doty's Atlanta career, he's managed to move from hot-vibe hoedowns like Mumbo Jumbo to the tony spot of executive chef at the High's Table 1280. But he's best on his own: Doty's menu is true bistro, a term that gets thrown around as easily in Atlanta as peroxide and Palm Pilots, though very few of those using it actually know what it means. Small; down-to-earth; affordable —- a bistro is chef-driven, and the chef is usually the owner —- that's Shaun's. The menu boasts soft pillows of gnudi surrounding a succulent chunk of pork belly in a jasmine-seasoned broth; steak frites fried in duck fat with mussels in a white wine cream sauce; beautifully breaded Berkshire pork schnitzel with parsley and toasted peanuts. Doty is secretly one of the best dessert chefs in the city —- and the down-home gooey goodness of Carolina Gold rice pudding with buttermilk cornbread ice cream is proof. Ditto the old-fashioned smartness of a cinnamon milk tart (think Midwestern/Southern panna cotta). The restaurant's posh yet understated style brings to mind world-class favorites like Chanterelle in New York and No. 9 Park in Boston, but certainly no other in Atlanta. In a dining scene glutted with glitz and glamour (and million-dollar price tags), Atlanta needs a restaurant like Shaun's the way Bedford Falls needed the Savings & Loan. We need its simple, understated beauty if for no other reason than to have a fine place to eat that doesn't involve neon and sushi. Dinner 5-10 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 5-9 p.m. Sundays. Brunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays. $$$
Sotto Sotto ****
313 N. Highland Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-523-6678.
Sotto Sotto, the island of Italian purity in Inman Park, will turn 10 next year, and it is every bit the wonder now that it was when it opened in 1999. Then, Atlanta couldn't get enough of country bread dipped in estate-bottled extra-virgin olive oil); the dizzyingly wonderful mushroom risotto; the fresh fish specials; the now-famous tortelli di Michelangelo with its buttery sage sauce and plump veal-, chicken- and pork-stuffed pasta. And we still can't. Sotto Sotto quietly remains an anchor to what's real about the Atlanta restaurant scene: good cooking that uses honorable ingredients. Owner Riccardo Ullio's passion for everything, from aged balsamic vinegar to the World Cup (witness the flags adorning his restaurant Fritti, next door) pulses through Sotto Sotto, from the all-Italian wine list (which, to explore, is a little like daydreaming your way through Italy) to the menu of simple, all-out Italian soul food. 5:30-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays. $$$
Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro ****
1197 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-873-4888.
No restaurant in Atlanta creates the fire show that is great Thai food with quite the amount of flavor and finesse as Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro. The new name and new location, at Colony Square, are simply beguilements —- this is Tamarind Thai Cuisine, dressed up with an interior designed by the Johnson Studio. Chef-owner Nan Niyomkul, along with husband Charlie and son Eddie, has packed up her galangal root and curry paste from the former 14th Street location, and things couldn't be better. Everything Nan touches turns to beautiful, from the bright fuchsia orchid on each plate to Tamarind's gorgeous new dining room, replete in layers of rich chocolate color, black lacquered tables and bright glass cookie jars of spices along the walls. And everything cooked here turns to flavor. Along with some of the best fish dishes the city has to offer, the classic Thai salads are small universes of enjoyment. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Fridays; 4-11 p.m. Saturdays. Lunch and dinner noon-10 p.m. Sundays. $$$
Tasty China ***
585 Franklin Road S.E.,
Suite B-3, Marietta. 770-419-9849.
Tasty China has changed dramatically since it opened to fanfare with chef Peter Chang (who promptly left). Many favorite dishes that were hard to find elsewhere, like the scallion bubble pancakes and triple-stuffed bean curd skin, have been stripped from the menu. But the heat is still on with fiery, authentic Szechuan/Chinese food not to be ventured into lightly —- the kitchen here still cooks with fervor, and lots of Sichuan peppers and peppercorns. Steer away from the American side of the menu and trust feisty owner Phuong Nguyen (who may try to head you in that direction). Instead, let her guide you toward fiery dan dan noodle soup with pork, the fried eggplant or the sloppy wonderfulness of a dish of sharp pepper fish, made with tilapia and silken tofu mixed in a heap of red and jalapeno peppers, or a hot beef dish with "spicy green peppers" brought as a sizzling hot pot teeming with slices of jalepenos. Their small, round greenness hides under slices of tender beef, like a snake waiting to strike. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. $$
101 Marietta St., Atlanta. 404-389-1000.
It takes guts to open an upscale restaurant, bar and lounge in what was once a downtown Gorin's, where there's no free parking for customers (hence the free valet) or employees, and where no one wants to come unless they are already there. What Thrive has going for it is a local edge —- general manager and partner A.D. Allushi is a Buckhead Life alum, and owner Jeff Safari, among other things, owned the nightclub Compound. Ian Winslade of Posh created the menu, which at first glance comes across a little cheeky, kind of like offerings found on a catering menu for a party at a golf club. But a second look allows an almost feng shui genius to its polar oddities —- elbow macaroni with cheese and bits of ham sounds downright pedestrian until you taste and it becomes a creamy-vs.-salty mess of something you want to just smear around and have fun with. Shrimp cocktail, on the other hand, is a delicate offering of plump shrimp in a salad of buttery avocado and diced tomatoes with a spicy-sweet sauce peppered with horseradish. Big sandwiches for lunch (go for the grouper) and a separate sushi menu round things out. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Bar open later. $$-$$$
1425 Piedmont Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-874-5951.
Tierra embraces that immeasurable cross between gourmet and good —- foodies and regulars come for the diverse, pan-Latin menu, and keep coming back because everything just tastes so great. After nearly 10 years, chef-owners and husband-and-wife team Dan and Ticha Krinsky know enough to leave favorites such as the steamed mussels and the ever-loved pionono alone. They also know to add weekly changes (usually to celebrate a Latin country's independence day). Staples like the Salvadorean pupusa, thick corn tortillas melded together with gooey cheese offset by tart curtido (think coleslaw), and the Brazilian-style roasted chicken with a sauce of cashews and peanuts swimming in a ginger-laced coconut milk are organically good, and the essence of soulful Latin cooking. The tres leches is the best anywhere. Ever. A wine list short but brimming with Latin and Spanish selections rounds out the evening. Every summer the owners try to spend a week in a different Latin country to bring back dishes for their specials list, as well as art for the walls of this cozy spot in Ansley Park. 6-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays.; 6-10:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$$
1180 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-815-3337.
Restaurateur Bob Amick is so much better when he puts his efforts into a grown-up venue such as Trois. A man who has built a restaurant empire based on the kind of glitzy glam that Atlantans lap up like the latest vodka martini, his realm includes prepubescent pretties One Midtown Kitchen, Two Urban Licks and Lobby at Twelve. At Trois chef Jeremy Lieb has taken Amick's pinup fantasy of a modern French restaurant and brought it into flattering focus, albeit with a few strokes of the airbrush. All of Lieb's dishes possess a clever modernity that impresses but never overreaches or intimidates, even in the portion of the menu dedicated to a few brasserie-style classics such as beef bourguignon and flounder Parisian. Desserts, overseen by Concentrics pastry chef Jonathan St. Hilaire, are modern marvels. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Dinner: 5:30-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5:30 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays. Bar open earlier and later. $$$-$$$$
406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur. 404-378-4900.
A converted gas station in Decatur is an ideal setting for chef Scott Peacock's upscale Southern classics. This is after-church-on-Sunday food, and a blessed reminder of how important cooking used to be to all of us. The vegetable plate is the best in the city, with beautifully seasoned greens, lightly fried cauliflower florets, creamy (but not too sweet) sweet potatoes and cabbage. Savory shrimp grits with hearty slices of Pullman bread to dip or smear have become, like the fried chicken, staples on a menu that is half signature, half seasonal. The spoon bread is downright unlawful, and the butter bean hummus (a signature) the perfect dip for a smattering of seasonal raw veggies. Finishing the evening with a slice of wholesome chocolate cake or a plateful of warm cookies is like visiting Grandma's house without having to help with the dishes. There is a laid-back ease to the cooking, and dinner or brunch will remind you of long past Sunday suppers. Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Afternoon menu: 3-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Brunch: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. $$$
471 N. Highland Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-525-3363.
This restaurant in Inman Park was one of the first to bring Southern food out of the frying pan and into the fire of culinary fashion. It opened in 2001 in what had been the sacred space of Babette's, an old grocery turned into a restaurant —- a recycled rarity in Atlanta. Chef-owner Jason Hill stripped the space of its frilly French clutter and used its brick walls and plate-glass windows to minimalist advantage, creating a modern but rustic look. But more important, he fused solid training in the kitchen with the heart of Southern cuisine, and in doing so created one of Inman Park's most beloved dining spots. Finally, there was a place to try indigenous ingredients like black-eyed peas in the clever guise of a slightly chunky hummus served with sweet potato chips, while sipping a decent glass of wine. Hill's "antipasto" plate boasts pimento cheese and celery with slices of country ham and pickled okra. And the iron skillet chicken, served over peppery collards speckled with bacon, has become a city signature as much for the luscious sweetness of the roasted corn pudding that accompanies it as for the generous helping of old-fashioned fried chicken. Hill is one of those rare chefs who excels at entrees of molasses-rubbed pork tenderloin over fluffy sweet potato souffle, with a sassy relish of Vidalia onion, apple and walnuts. Or specials that veer a little to the West, like chile-rubbed flank steak with adobo-laced mashed potatoes. Wisteria deserves its popularity as much for its staying power as it does Hill's candid cooking. Folks come here for a plate of the familiar, and leave knowing they've gotten a dose of Southern flair. 5:30-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. $$-$$$