Some chefs approach cooking with intellectual precision. Others value novelty nearly as much as taste. Still others cultivate a persona fit for televised kitchen melodrama. And then there are those who pour their heart into their work.
Jennifer Levison is one of the latter. Although she has plenty of the performer in her — in fact, she only hires actors — she's one of those people who wears her heart on her sleeve while she stirs the soups that have made her cafe, Souper Jenny, so popular. It's small and located in Buckhead, but it's a destination lunch spot, especially for the healthy-minded. Although meat-filled soups and sandwiches are available, the accent seems vegetarian and gluten-free these days. There are also salads, some with meat and some without.
Now, Levison has opened a second restaurant, Cafe Jonah and the Magical Attic (3188 Paces Ferry Place, 404-343-4107). It's named after her son and is a quite unusual spot. It's located in the cottage most recently occupied by Full Cup Bakery. Levison has turned it into a sunny, brightly painted cafe inspired by Euro-style coffee houses. It offers a limited breakfast-and-lunch menu and pastries from the city's best bakeries, such as Highland Bakery and Holeman & Finch. You can eat the baked goods as dessert or as a snack with excellent espresso drinks. Here, too, gluten-free dishes are offered with some vegetarian options.
I've visited twice. The first time was with my regular Friday lunch pals. I ordered a classic muffuletta that was as good as any I've had in town, along with a tastily seasoned slaw made from purple cabbage. I finished with a slice of (gluten-free) lemon icebox cake, made by a private baker. All was more than satisfying.
My friends were less satisfied. They both ordered salad plates. Both agreed that the same slaw I ordered was especially good. But they found two others — the tuna and the chicken — bland, despite their unusual ingredients like, for example, yogurt instead of the typical mayo. A pasta salad rated higher. I didn't taste it. Pasta salad, no matter who makes it, is among my least favorite foods on the planet.
I returned a few days later with my friend Rose, who I knew would love the cafe's sunny feel and the mysterious magical attic above us. I was right. Her pita bread, filled with roasted turkey, goat cheese and a raspberry spread, was delicious. I ordered a super-good slice of the daily frittata. I thought it was too small for its $8.95 cost, but I think everything good is too small. What caused Rose and I both to rave was an almost decadent-tasting salad made with several squashes. If you see it, do not pass it by.
For dessert, we had two oversized cookies — one oatmeal and one chocolate chip. I'd like to say we shared these, but I ate far more than Rose did while she finished her sandwich, which dwarfed my frittata.
So what's upstairs in the magical attic? First, notice that each step displays a one-word sign like "joy," "grace," "peace" and "breathe." A stairway to heaven? Well, sort of. The upstairs is a space for new age-style spiritual practices and merchandise. During my first visit, we found two psychics giving clients card readings. There were lots of candles and a few other knickknacks that reminded me of the '80s. The space hosts meditation classes, psychic fairs and astrologers. I asked Levinson what this was all about.
"It's what I like," she said. "That's what this is all about, good food and spirituality."
It's quirky, beautiful and fun. So give it a try. The seating is fairly limited, so you might want to go midmorning or midafternoon.
More faux Mexican food
My friend Chuck O'Boyle, who briefly wrote a dining column for Creative Loafing years ago, joined me for dinner recently at the new Abrigo (818 Juniper St., 404-963-7673, www.abrigomidtown.com) in Midtown, where Mitra was last located. I was nervous about Chuck joining me for a first visit. He's probably the pickiest foodie I've ever met.
I'm sorry to say that our "fusion of Mexican, Southwest and Latin cuisine" was mediocre at best, but I'm happy to say that Chuck was restrained. He did not bury a fork in my forehead.
We started with a watery cheese dip that was served without the tortillas the menu promised. We asked, we got them — and they were, for me, probably the highlight of the meal: thick and fluffy.
Chuck's entrée was chicken mole. The bland sauce was dumped over a way overcooked chicken breast. Even stranger was my order of carnitas. They weren't carnitas at all. They were chunks of roasted pork that had been rolled in a tomatillo sauce. Numerous restaurants around town also pass off simple roasted pork as carnitas, but this version didn't have a speck of crispy skin or juicy fat.
My side of charro beans was especially shocking. There is nothing even remotely difficult about cooking these, but they were completely tasteless at Abrigo. Chuck's sweet plantains were creamy and sweet, with the usual hint of bitterness. In actuality, they would serve as a better dessert than the flan we ordered. It had the texture of Jello. Yes, Jello flan!
The staff was sweet but totally confused about the menu. We also met the apparent owner, a very nice guy. I wanted to ask, as I so often do: "Why, in a city with a huge Latino population, haven't you hired a good chef?"
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