Bright bites, big city 

CL's new dining critic solicts your advice

I arrived in Atlanta last Monday, the night of the ferocious thunderstorm that marked the reversal of spring back into winter.

"Where do you want to eat?" my friend asked my husband and me. We were filthy and bedraggled from moving. Neither of us had slept more than three hours in the past two days. The excitement I'd built up over the past few weeks, about coming to Atlanta and eating it up, had drained out of me. All the restaurant names stored in my head after hours of poring over guides and magazines had slipped away, replaced by fatigue and an intense desire to rid myself of all material possessions.

"Wherever," I replied. "What are the options?"

"Well, close by ... there's some pretty good Thai food. There's great sushi, or Southern comfort food if you want that. There's Mexican, or Vietnamese ... ."

As she spoke, the excitement began to build up again. Atlanta! A real city! Good restaurants in every neighborhood, food to explore, culinary adventure, variety!

Not to say that I came from a wasteland. The Triangle area of North Carolina has some amazing restaurants, world-class restaurants, and my time there will forever make me an annoying barbecue snob. But the culinary possibilities there are in no way endless.

Before moving to North Carolina, I lived in New York. If I came to that city a food lover, I left food-obsessed. From life-altering meals in four-star restaurants to $3 Vietnamese sandwiches, Polish sausages and the fact that every neighborhood offers a new opportunity to experience the exotic, the foreign and the sensual through food, New York gave me my passion and my career.

My first week in Atlanta has been a whirlwind culinary tour, one that I'm delighted to say barely scratched the surface. I have had good Thai, Indian and Vietnamese food without even getting near Buford Highway, so I know it can only get better. I've experienced the good, cheap tacos and surly service at Taqueria del Sol. I've had fantastic sandwiches from Star Provisions.

At Wisteria, I ate killer peach chow-chow and a plate of very good fried chicken over some salty-as-hell collards, and was pleased to find that such a grown-up-feeling restaurant could be truly kid-friendly -- they were accommodating to the 2-year-old at our table.

I stuffed myself with an amazing meal of mezze at Kyma, with almost every dish flawless, although it will take me some time to get used to the almost Disneyesque feel of Buckhead decor. I stopped by for drinks and nibbles at Two Urban Licks, was appropriately overwhelmed by the cool space and scene, and underwhelmed by the small sampling of food I tried. It also took me awhile to get any service, which I decided was due to the fact that all the waiters had trendy hair-in-the-eyes haircuts that prevented them from seeing me through their stylish bangs. Could it be that service with a slightly slack, hipster attitude will be the Atlanta attribute I'll just have to learn to live with?

That's about as far as I got in my first five days in town -- hardly comprehensive, but enough to give me a feel for what's out there.

Now here's where you come in. Dear reader, I need your help! I am brand new to town. I could use all the advice, recommendations and direction that you're willing to throw my way. I want to know about every type of restaurant, and I want to know what you want to know about.

I'm particularly interested in neighborhood restaurants, and in the places where good food is the pleasant surprise. Anyone can walk into a fancy restaurant and get some kind of decent meal, but it's the small gem where you wouldn't expect it that gets me really fired up.

When I was younger, I was very enamored of fine dining and all the bells and whistles that go along with high-end restaurants. But in recent years, I've come to feel that carefully prepared, thoughtful food can be found in all kinds of establishments.

There's still nothing like a beautiful meal in a beautiful restaurant. But for me, it's become more and more about the food. I now feel that it's actually more likely for me to get a good meal in some small, family-run place than it is for me to eat really well in a slick restaurant that's a temple to marketing rather than fine cuisine.

My experience at Kyma this week proved again that the two things -- fancy concept and great food -- can indeed go hand-in-hand. It's nice when they do. But when they don't, I'd much rather be sitting in some dive eating well than on a gilded chair eating crap.

What makes a restaurant great is thoughtful food, warm service and comfortable surroundings. Those elements have been a part of every great restaurant meal I've eaten, regardless of the expense or pedigree. But in some way, the excitement of living in a city with the broad culinary landscape of Atlanta is the unexpected and the undiscovered. I am looking forward to the meals I am sure to have here, and with your help, discovering the flavor of Atlanta.

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