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Art Walk 

First visits to Staley's Grace and Village Pizza

My dining highlight this week occurred around midnight on Ponce de Leon after enduring four hours of the national amateur physique and fitness competition at the Hyatt Regency. Yes, that's what four hours of watching men and women flexing in thongs does to a person like me. I raced to Zesto to apply soft-serve ice cream to my body.

I've long been addicted to the toffee-coffee Arctic Swirl here. It's ice cream blended with a Heath Bar and coffee syrup and it's so childishly yummy that I can even happily pay a third of someone else's bill, as I did Saturday night, to get them to cease their five-minute argument about the cost of french fries. If you think gentrification has totally overtaken Ponce, hit Zesto at midnight.

But here's what made my visit so wonderful: Zesto has taken to parodying our fearless preznit, George W. Bush. On each table Sunday night was the announcement of a new dessert. "Double your delight," the placard said, "with 'heck of a job' brownie sundae." You remember the clueless Bush commending FEMA head Michael Brown for doing a "heck of a job" by ignoring New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

You know the fortunes of the Republican Party are diminishing when its leader's words make most sense as a description of junk food.

Meanwhile, the lengthily named Staley's Grace International Bistro and Art Exposition (1100 Crescent Ave., 404-872-0999) has opened in Midtown. It's an attractive concept -- a space that combines dining with art for sale. The space itself is an interesting blend of the cozy -- leather sofas before a big stone fireplace -- and the kind of long, eggshell walls right for hanging art. Tables are glossy dark wood, some of them with tall, cream-colored banquettes.

Service is great. Louis, Waitron of the Week, answered our every question with patience, and his own curiosity often led him to quiz the chef and then transmit the information to us. We'd never heard of a "poulette" sauce, for example, and although everyone, including us and the chef, turned out to be wrong about it, we appreciated Louis' tolerance of Wayne's lengthy discourse on the likely etymological sources of the word. As it turned out, it's a common sauce made with egg yolks.

Notice that I'm saving mention of the food for last. That's because it was very disappointing. The two appetizers we sampled were far better than the entrees. Roasted shrimp wrapped in bacon, served with a Creole mustard sauce, and Danish baby back ribs, sticky with a cola-based barbecue sauce, would be wholly gratifying as munchies to devour at Staley's bar, which is separate from the dining room (though not separate enough to prohibit a cigar's smell from wafting to our nostrils).

Wayne's strip steak was grilled medium-rare and would have earned a decent grade had its "Gorgonzola crust" been anything like a bubbly brown. Instead it was an unappetizing white, barely warm layer that resembled icing. My own dish, lobster ravioli, was virtually inedible. The doughy ravioli were filled with lobster ground beyond recognition. I anticipated that and ordered the dish with some shrimp for $3 extra. But what really made the dish unpalatable was the renowned "crab poulette" sauce -- a pink, sweet sauce dense enough to clog a drain. The dish deserves your immediate avoidance.

Desserts were from Blahsville. A chocolate cake was as over-iced as the steak. Crepes enfolding strawberries and blueberries were mealy but redeemed by the disguise of whipped cream and a huge portion of ice cream.

None of this was cheap. We spent about $90 with only one glass of wine.

Having impoverished ourselves, we went for cheap the following night at the new Village Pizza Co. (186 Carroll St., 404-586-0040) in Cabbagetown. With this new cafe's opening, it's no easy job to find parking on Carroll Street at dinnertime these days.

Village Pizza will remind you of Slice on Peters Street as soon as you enter. Though it's unrelated, the restaurant has the same look of blond wood booths and an open kitchen. There's a charming decorative feature I've never seen in a restaurant before: Above each table is a wood plaque on which the staff has taped a crayon drawing by a child. They are utterly delightful.

I asked how often they were changed and an employee told me that so far they had only taken down adult drawings, which were seldom as engaging as the work by kids. Take your own budding artists by there soon. We don't want the display to grow stale.

The food is cheap and mainly good. A bowl of ravioli filled with smoked Gouda and sun-dried tomatoes, just $6.25, was excellent comfort on a cold, rainy night. You get your choice of sauces here and I elected a marinara that was a pleasant departure from the usual around town. It was light, not cooked to death, with lots of chunky tomatoes and a strong hit of garlic. Other sauces -- pesto, Alfredo, Bolognese and primavera -- can be ordered with different pastas.

There's lasagna, eggplant Parmesan and chicken Parmesan, along with panini, calzones and a soup of the day, too.

Wayne ordered a gigantic pizza -- the "Village deluxe" -- that was far too weighed down with meats and veggies for my taste. Most of the crust was a bit soggy. On the other hand, a single slice of the white pizza was almost crispy (though the cheese, deliciously molten when it arrived at the table, quickly turned rubbery). Generally, the dough here is New York-style and a bit thicker than I prefer. But I'll be going back soon.

We also split a Greek salad, which will remind you of Fellini's or Savage's salads. There was a lot of romaine lettuce and white mushroom slices with green peppers, onions, broccoli, feta and pepperocini. Oh, and black olives. Lots of slices of little rubbery black olives, which also overwhelmed the pizza Wayne ordered. I really wish these tasteless bits of vegetative flotsam would go away forever.

Desserts are ice cream novelties and pints of Ben & Jerry's.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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