Alive in '05 

Bye bye Blais and Commune; hello Quinones Room and Shout

I can be alarmingly myopic about the city of Atlanta. When I recently heard that Wolfgang Puck would be providing food service at the Georgia Aquarium, slated to open in late 2005, I was shocked. I walked into a staff meeting and blurted out, "Hey guys! Did you know they're building an aquarium here?" They all stared at me blankly like I'd just pulled my head out of the sand. Among other places. I need to make a point of reading other sections of CL more.

As absorbed in Atlanta's dining scene as I am, it surprises me, as I look back over the year, how few noteworthy restaurants gave up the ghost in 2004. Perhaps the economy is turning around after all.

Jim White's Half Shell in Peachtree Battle closed after nearly 30 years in business. Horizon in Virginia-Highland couldn't make it in the former Indigo space (I'm starting to suspect Alix Kenagy put a curse on the location after she left). Commune vacated its Westside location, creating some intriguing possibilities for new occupants. Tiburon Grille, whose fried chicken I miss, was replaced by as-yet uneven Vine.

Of course, the most scandalous flameout was Blais, the eccentric Buckhead brainchild of chef Richard Blais that was closed by its investors after less than six months in business. Atlantans never took to the restaurant's zany, brainy bites that included salty chicken skin topped by a tiny scoop of coleslaw sorbet, grilled shrimp speared on an eyedropper filled with liquidy shrimp head sauce, and the infamous "Cristal burger" with the foie gras milkshake. Blais and his milkshake turned up weeks later at Bazzaar next to the Fox, but that relationship also dissolved after a couple months. Word is that Blais is catering while contemplating his next restaurant gig.

If the relatively small sum of notable closings surprised me, the number of intriguing new restaurants slated for 2005 floored me. Be sure to re-up your gym membership in January. Grand eating possibilities for every budget and taste abound. Here are the highlights of the known frontrunners:

l It's been four years since Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, chef/owners of glorious Bacchanalia, its companion market Star Provision and its sister restaurant, Floataway Cafe, embarked on a new project. But in February, Quatrano and Harrison will unveil Quinones Room, an intimate 24-seat restaurant located in Commune's private event room across the courtyard from Bacchanalia. The restaurant, named for James Quinones, the manager of Floataway who was killed in a car accident in August, will focus almost exclusively on Georgia-grown ingredients. Quatrano says that traditional Southern preparations will be weaved into the restaurant's nightly changing, prix-fixe menu.Quatrano and Harrison are also expanding Star Provisions in February. They will take over the former location of Sprout next door and create a space for additional bakery items and prepared take-out foods. Quatrano adds that they hope to squeeze in some tables so customers can eat the take-out items on premises.l So what's going in the rest of the sizable space vacated by Commune? According to Knife and Fork, the restaurant newsletter published by Atlanta food critic Christiane Lauterbach, Tom Or, owner of the Tin Drum Cafe in Technology Square, has a bid to turn the place into a high-end Asian restaurant tentatively named Sampan. Or was in Tokyo at press time and couldn't be reached for comment, so more to be revealed on this one.

l To continue the care and feeding of the Westside, The Real Chow Baby, a create-your-own-stir-fry restaurant, will open Jan. 17. Customers will choose from more than 70 ingredients, plunk them in a bowl and hand them over to the grill cooks. The restaurant's snazzy digs includes a full bar. Mike Blum, the brains behind the outfit and a veteran of Spice, Bone's and Fratelli di Napoli, clearly hopes to turn this prototype into a successful franchise.

l Across the bridge, Tom Catherall of Here To Serve Restaurants (Noche, Prime, Goldfish) is set to open his next project, Shout, in Midtown's Colony Square in February. Shout will be comparable in ambience to Catherall's Twist in Phipps Plaza, though the menu will differ. The sprawling eatery will occupy two floors, including an outdoor patio/lounge area. Executive chef Ian Winslade, formerly of Bluepointe, will oversee kitchen production that includes two wood-burning pizza ovens and a sushi bar. The whole thing sounds completely over-the-top and exactly what Midtowners will salivate over. Bring earplugs.

l Catherall will simultaneously launch Peri Peri Chicken, a fast-food rotisserie chicken concept also housed in Colony Square. The chicken will be marinated in sauces with varying heat, including Catherall's riff on peri peri, the fiery South African peri sauce. Like Shout, Peri Peri Chicken was designed by -- who else? -- the Bill Johnson Studio.

l The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a small national chain, has claimed the space vacated by Coohill's. Similar to McCormick and Schmick's but more upscale, the menu changes daily to reflect the most pristinely fresh seafood available. For a chain, it's been well received by critics in other cities (including Seattle and Washington, D.C.), so here's hoping. God knows we can always use more decent seafood spots in town.

l Lastly, a word on Atlantic Station. The live-work-play behemoth is scheduled to open its retail portion to the public in fall 2005. So far, the restaurant lineup looks disappointingly predictable. Who can get worked up about California Pizza Kitchen, Mama Fu's, Moe's and Don Green's (a salad spinoff of Doc Chey's)? The mix also includes Rosa Mexicano, a New York-based operation, and Copeland's Cheesecake, a New Orleans spin on the Cheesecake Factory. But hopefully all is not forsaken. Some independent-minded eateries may yet sign on.


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