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Back to basics 

Of Agnes, Muriel and the flavorless young

If you hadn't noticed, the last year or so has been dominated by corporate restaurant openings. Some of these, like Fogo de Chao and Monty's Stone Crab, have defied my expectations of bad food and service. Although I find the showmanship at Fogo annoying, there's no denying that the food is excellent. Monty's is a bit glitzy, with its view of Lenox Square, but the food is mainly terrific.

Independent small restaurants just aren't opening much in the present economy, and I feel almost slimy driving away from these corporate spots (in my SUV) feeling satisfied. Their one drawback, of course, is their usually hefty prices, though I have to admit the rising costs of dining out nearly everywhere in Atlanta is leveling even that old difference between the boutique restaurant and the fine-dining corporate one.

So, while I've been to a few corporate spots recently, I've also been checking out some of the city's cheap spots -- its diners. I'll be reporting on both in the next few weeks.

It had been a year or longer since I visited popular Agnes and Muriel's (1514 Monroe Drive, 404-885-1000) a few weeks ago. I was charmed by the restaurant's interior, a Jetson fantasy for Barbie, when it first opened five or six years ago and I liked the food, too. But the instant popularity seemed to stress the kitchen and I thought the menu grew rather stale in a hurry. This surprised me, since co-owner Glenn Powell had worked as a menu developer for the Peasant Corp. I guess there's not much point in tampering with a menu that's selling well.

Maybe it's precisely because I'm sick of big fancy restaurants and high prices or maybe the food really has improved, but Agnes and Muriel's seemed much more pleasing during my visit. The decor remains amusing, except for a pair of restrooms that need serious cleaning. During my visit to the men's room, I had to wait while an employee rinsed out a gigantic salad bowl shaped like a martini glass in the sink. She left behind a barely draining sink full of water in which pieces of lettuce floated. Ugh.

There most of my complaints end. We loved our waiter Kenneth, herewith declared Waitron of the Week. Wry and efficient, Kenneth even researched ingredients on some of the dishes for us, trekking up and down the stairs to the kitchen. I applaud him for not demanding that we leave him alone and buy the restaurant's cookbook.

The menu remains your basic home-style comfort cooking. There's a good bit of nostalgic food, like a grilled cheese sandwich, salmon croquettes and salad dressings like Green Goddess that I'm not going to eat unless I'm in the utter depths of infantile regression. Most of the food does in fact appeal to the kid in you, but there are plenty of dishes with adult tastes, too.

Asparagus is an adult food, for example, but it's served kiddie-style here -- fried with ranch dipping sauce ($6.50). We couldn't make out the breading, which is almost tempura-like, so Kenneth trekked downstairs twice to find out, first, that it's made with Bisquick and, second, that it's got seven seasonings, none of which were very exotic, though the thyme explained the slightly weird taste. Kenneth gets points for saying "Bisquick" with a straight face.

Generally, the restaurant should get an award for effective frying, Bisquick or not. We really liked the huge skillet of fried green tomatoes topped with goat cheese ($8.75). I'm tempted to call them the city's best. The restaurant also uses them in a BLT with melted mozzarella and red-pepper sauce ($7.95) and to top a burger ($8.50)

The fried food continued with our entrees. Wayne selected an entree from the regular menu, grilled pork chops with (fried) cinnamon-apple fritters ($14.95). As I've written here before, I'm sick of the sweet and fruity treatment of pork everywhere in the city. But Agnes and Muriel's avoids the too-common cloying sweetness. The pork was tender; the apple fritters firm and hot. I liked his side dishes -- a tart salad combining chunks of watermelon, Vidalia onions and fried okra sauced in butter spiked with hot sauce.

I picked a dish from the specials menu. This time, the fryer's art was performed on a trio of lobster tails ($22.95). I was not convinced they would be "real" tails. I have been running into "baby lobster tails" all over the city in recent months and have found them predictably tasteless. Alas, Agnes and Muriel's, whether literally baby tails or from adolescents, also lacked flavor. Mainly they tasted of their light sesame batter. A mustard sauce occluded all hope of inherent taste. The best I can say is that they had good texture.

I actually made a few calls to seafood counters around town and nearly everyone agreed that the young lobster tastes inferior to the adult. They are cheaper, though, complicating the picture.

Linda Hollis of Inland Seafood, the city's best known wholesaler, told me that any young lobster consumed in the summer is going to have inferior taste because the creatures' energies are devoted to shell-building rather than, I suppose, the indolent pastimes that make the well-armored lobster tastier. Her recommendation is to avoid the young in the steamy months and, in any case, to look for a Maine pedigree.

Rounding out my meal: I liked my gingered sugar snap beans in a light soy dressing. My grits, creamy and studded with corn kernels, would have earned an A-plus had they been hot. Finally, we finished by splitting a slice of Glenn Powell's butterscotch pie, which first emerged from his test kitchen at Mick's. It is still flawless, but not served with the hot butterscotch sauce, which, on reflection, really does seem like excessive gilding.

Agnes and Muriel's is not quite perfect, but still lots of fun.

E-mail Cliff Bostock or call his voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 with comments.

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