A lot of foodies sniffled when high-styling Terra di Siena closed earlier this year. The rather short-lived restaurant next to the Fox Theatre served good Tuscan cuisine for big bucks. The restaurant opened with some very creative food but became less exciting in its last months. Its demise was no surprise. Restaurant after restaurant has failed there.
Now, Bacar (654 Peachtree St., 404-885-7505) has taken its place. It's been opened by the same people who operate the excellent pizzeria, Baraonda, just down the street. The new owners have maintained Terra's basic interior of rich woods, although some bright painting has taken the formal edge off the place and they've removed the door sign warning you that you better be dressed right.
The concept is confusing as hell. "Bacar," I was told, is Portuguese for a wine goblet of some sort. The restaurant serves mainly tapas, not a single one of which is Spanish. Most of them, like the grilled entrees, are Italian. A restaurant employee will tell you with a straight face that the concept is Mediterranean but that's rather like being handed an Argentine menu in a restaurant called "Waterford Goblet" and being told the food is "Atlantic."
In fact, I am unable to verify that "bacar" has any use in Portuguese. Instead, it is apparently derived from a Latin word for "wine glass." I'm presuming the owners borrowed the name from Arnold Eric Wong's immensely successful San Francisco restaurant by the same name (which, by the way, conceptually more closely resembles Atlanta's new One).
Happily, a no-nonsense waiter like ours, Amyn, was willing to clear up our confusion: "The food is Italian and the 'tapas' should be called 'piccoli piatti' or 'sputini.' They call them 'tapas' because everyone knows what 'tapas' are." However, he explained, the menu is about to be changed to reflect its mainly Italian content.
Once you get past the conceptual confusion, you alas dine only moderately well. Wayne and I sampled three tapas. Grilled calamari ($6) is actually calamalone, a squid steak. When Wayne's order of it arrived, I asked him how it was. "It's pretty good," he mumbled.
I've learned that when Wayne says it's "pretty good," he means it sucks. I tasted it and was shocked to discover that he had eaten half a plate of undercooked, squishy squid steak. When I mentioned that to Amyn, who most recently worked at Veni Vidi Vici, he whisked it away and soon returned another plate of it. "I insisted the chef cook it himself," he said. It was cooked just right. Moreover, it was much more liberally coated with a pepperoncino sauce (which, incidentally, needed an acidic shot of lemon or balsamic vinegar). Weird.
The day's frittata ($6) included crab meat. Wayne and I took turns trying to discern an actual taste of crab. We saw a few bits of stringy crab but the flavor completely eluded us. Our third tapa was delicious -- little fried fishes, bianchetti, with lemon aioli ($5). It was not as good as the fried sardines and anchovies we've stuffed ourselves on in Vernazza and Nice, but, doused with some balsamic vinegar, they were pleasing.
My entree, a special of rotisserie leg of lamb ($22), was frankly dreadful. Grossly overcooked, grayer than a tombstone, the lamb slices were served with a lackluster grain mustard sauce. Mashed potatoes, some decent asparagus and some mysteriously tasteless spinach were also on the plate. Avoid it unless you have just been released from prison after a 90-day fast.
Wayne ordered the day's fish -- halibut ($26).The fish was cooked well enough and its sauce, a fluorescent green sauce made of parsley and olive oil, was startling, refreshing -- and way too intense for the fish.
For dessert we ordered a sorbet that wasn't a sorbet at all. It was banana-mango ice cream ($6.50) and you'll like it as long as you don't expect to taste anything like mango in it.
The best part of our meal was our server, Amyn, really. I declare him Waitron of the Week. Of Pakistani heritage but raised in the U.S., he tipped us off to his favorite Pakistani restaurant in Atlanta: The Mughals on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. (He also likes the Pakistani fare at Decatur's Zyka.)
I know the Baraonda folks are capable of creating an experience better than one where the most memorable thing is learning the name of a Pakistani restaurant!
Here and there
Normally, when the craving for dim sum hits, I head out to Buford Highway to Oriental Pearl or Canton House, but a few weeks ago, I tried Hong Kong Harbor on Cheshire Bridge.
I was very pleasantly surprised. You won't find many of the esoteric dishes you get at the other two places, but the tandards, like dumplings and sesame- coated taro balls filled with red bean paste, are first-class. I also like the barbecued pork and the shrimp balls skewered on sugar cane.
Sundown Cafe, also on Cheshire Bridge, is welcoming back David Waller, who worked as chef there a while and then headed to Santa Barbara and Santa Fe. He will be helping Executive Chef Eddie Hernandez at the Cafe and the two highly successful Taqueria del Sol locations.
Hernandez produced an incredible lunchtime special two weeks ago -- boned pork ribs over hot, chipotle-spiked hominy. I had to return twice for it.
Meanwhile, George, who works the bar where you order lunch dishes, continues to amuse regulars by snapping at slow customers and taking unnatural pleasure in informing people that no chips and salsa are available at lunch.
I've been raving about the dishes Nancy D. Mathews has put on the menu at Eclipse di Luna and now it turns out that she has left the restaurant. She's been caring for sick relatives. I look forward to her next venture.
On the way to the mountains, I stopped at Bien Thuy recently for my favorite Vietnamese food in the city. Salted pork cooked in a hot pot and catfish stew with lemongrass and pineapple were both remarkable.
Closed: Wildwood at Colony Square and The Eating Place in Grant Park. I hope the latter's location will become home to a serious restaurant.
OK, I confess I have an unhealthy passion for Popeye's fried chicken. But my compulsive weekly visits to the restaurant at Ponce and Boulevard have become occasions of dread.
It is bad enough that the staff seems to ignore the 10 o'clock closing time and often locks the door 30 minutes early, forcing me into the long drive-thru line of people agonizing whether to order their two-piece dinners spicy or mild.
But why does the place always seem to run out of something? And why, when I actually get to go inside, must I endure the flirtatious attentions of a clerk? She winks at me, tells me how much I look like Bruce Willis (huh?) and tells me she's giving me an extra biscuit -- and still gives me one less than I ordered. And why can't they completely fill the coleslaw containers, when they actually have the stuff? Why oh why? Life is cruel.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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