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Dining downtown 

Sylvia's declines, City Grill holds its own

Increasing numbers of people are actually establishing homes in downtown Atlanta. In re-done warehouses behind barbed wire fences, they are supposedly reclaiming the heart of the city from the commercial development that has turned our city into one of America's ugliest urban centers.

It's a noble effort. But it leaves one wondering. In other cities, living downtown is convenient. You can walk to the corner to a good restaurant or to a store to shop for groceries. But where do these people go to shop and dine? To Sandy Springs?

There are a few decent restaurants in downtown Atlanta but most of them cater to business folks and tourists. (That corner where Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood face one another is a little slice of Macon).

We were excited a few years ago when Sylvia's opened in downtown Atlanta, a chicken leg's throw from City Hall (241 Central Ave., 404-529-9692). An offshoot of the famous Harlem restaurant by the same name, it provided a classy venue for our region's soul-food specialties. My early visits there were always satisfying.

What happened?

A recent visit just before Christmas was amazingly disappointing. I wanted to tear my own framed review off the wall. Oh, the place still looks good. The dressed-to-the-nines crowd of African-Americans still leaves us frumpy white boys all agog. And we loved listening to the (nameless) woman at the piano who alternated standards with gospel tunes. We laughed, watching a table of Japanese rock out in praise of Jesus.

But otherwise, things were bad. Our waitron was affable but mainly invisible, despite a relatively light crowd. But the food! Oy. Give me any of Atlanta's soul-food kitchens -- Southfork or Son's Place -- over Sylvia's for now. Everything tasted as if it had been cooked hours earlier and held. An appetizer of salmon croquettes, served with "creamy cheese grits" ($5.75), was tepid, dry and hard. I could have played handball with them. "Sizzling catfish fingers" ($5.50) didn't sizzle, unless the word has been redefined to mean "limp and cool."

But the biggest disappointment, the unforgivable one, was the fried chicken ($12.95). "Need we say more?" the menu asks. Well, yeah. Apparently, "Sylvia's style" now means chicken held so long after frying that it's become stringy and hard to swallow. It was one of those dishes that, were I not bound by my profession to torture myself, I'd have sent back to the kitchen. A side of black-eyed peas tasted canned and collard greens were bland.

Smothered chicken ($13.95) was no better. Of course, this dish -- chicken cooked in a brown gravy with onions -- is virtually a stew. But this version had been cooked so long that the meat had lost its integrity. The plate quickly acquired the appearance of a pile of bones intermixed with tiny slivers of meat.

I think Sylvia, the self-anointed "Queen of Soul Food," needs some serious work.

Virtually at the other end of the spectrum is City Grill in the Hurt Building (50 Hurt Plaza, 404-524-2489). It's been a while, but my colleague Elliott Mackle and I lunched there quite well late last summer. I returned a week later with another friend. This restaurant has been up and down over the years. Once the priciest and most inventive member of the old Peasant group of restaurants, it is located in a former bank and is a nice nouveau attempt at an old-money décor. It's peaceful and service is flawless.

The menu of "creative American food" is good but, like most downtown food, isn't very edgy. Still, it would be hard to find anything downtown that comes close to the quality. Like most restaurants of its quality, dishes change seasonally and according to market availability. So, you won't find the flawless sweet potato soup with pistachios ($5) or yellow-tomato gazpacho ($7) spiked with cilantro and goat cheese right now. But you can be certain any soup available will be well executed.

The restaurant mixes Southern flavors and classics. A Caesar salad ($8) had all the right ingredients, including "anchovy palmiers," and suffered only from too much dressing. Fried green tomatoes with a house-made mozzarella ($8) were among the best I've had in town.

The kitchen excels at fish. In fact, my favorite dish was a pan-seared halibut with grilled portobellos and a red-wine reduction. Pan-roasted chicken is nearly as good. It was made with artichokes and onion confit at my meal but is made with wild mushrooms and sage now. Blue crab cakes with lemon linguine and red chili and basil oils ($16) is still on the menu but the tasty, if predictable, grilled pork chop with bourbon sweet potatoes and Calvados sauce ($13) has yielded to a more interesting pork tenderloin with prosciutto.

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