I think it's safe to venture that, after several tottering years, Atlanta's restaurant industry has returned to full-tilt boogie: Folks are once again spending their shekels dining out, and a panoply of eateries serving myriad cuisines in varying price points have recently unlocked their doors for business.
Yet you can always count on a couple of paradigm shifts to keep the scene stimulating. When was the last time a truly compelling restaurant opened in the heart of Buckhead? Midtown has thoroughly absconded its culinary thunder. And what happened to our burgeoning klatch of Indian restaurants? I dig Madras Saravana Bhavan as much as the next guy, but crepe-like dosais offer only a narrow glimpse into that vast continent's offerings.
Ah, well. I can contemplate our ever-evolving dining landscape at one of my favorite restaurants of 2005, listed below. Next week, I'll revisit some notable closings of the year and share the buzz on new spots slated to open in 2006.
Com Vietnamese Grill
Every critic in town trooped out to endorse this surprisingly hip little bôite that explores Vietnamese from a fresh new angle (for Atlanta, anyway). Com's frisky salads headline fruits like green papaya, green mango or diced apple layered with meats, crispy brown onions, peanuts and herbs until you have a motley mosaic of flavors and textures. La lot rolls -- the description identifies them as grape leaves but they're actually betel leaves -- are stuffed with your choice of protein, and they infuse their contents with an herbal, haunting smokiness. Did I mention that most dishes hover around $8 apiece? 4005 Buford Highway, Suite F. 404-320-0405.
Govantez Lowndes -- my favorite restaurateur name ever -- put the defunct Commune way behind him when he created his airy new hot spot in the epicenter of Technology Square. The Globe bridges the gap between neighborhood restaurant and scenester hang: You can swing by for a quick nosh at the bar or settle in with the eye-candy crowd for a meal of substance. Joshua Perkins, whose cooking I admired at Brasserie Le Coze and di Paulo in Alpharetta, is still finding his footing in the New American milieu. Gravitate to fish dishes, feisty apps like chorizo-sage croquettes and desserts designed by Aria's pastry chef, Kathryn King. 75 Fifth St. 404-541-1487. www.globeatlanta.com.
Muss & Turner's
I know intowners can't claim all the fun food destinations, but if Muss & Turner's were in Midtown instead of Smyrna? I'd be blowing my lunch budget here weekly. Part deli, part purveyor of culinary exotica, M&T's is a quirky yet finely tuned operation. Todd Mussman, Ryan Turner and their committed staff daily execute a clear vision of excellence. Which is not to say they lack a sense of humor. The "Are You Kidding Me?" sandwich involves a fried chicken breast, horseradish slaw, and country ham on a "big ole buttermilk dog head" biscuit. ("Try eating this without a fork," the menu taunts.) Homesick New Yorkers need the Reuben right this minute. And take home some of the vacuum-packed (sous vide) meals for dinner. 1675 Cumberland Parkway, Suite 309, Smyrna. 770-434-1114. www.mussandturners.com.
Speaking of treats in the suburbs, good luck getting into this Alpharetta success story on a weekend night. The cheerful industrial look of this homage to a Pure Oil gas station belies a savvy menu of faithfully rendered Mexican nibbles with some gourmandizing American sass thrown in. The tacos -- particularly the fried grouper and beef cheek -- have solid street cred. I'm almost ashamed to disclose my favorite dish here: the Hamburguesa Sedgwick (named for the owners). Layered with avocado, pickled jalapeños, poblanos, braised onions, bacon and cheese, it's utterly ridiculous. And scrumptious. 103 Roswell St., Alpharetta. 678-240-0023.
Why a midscale, neighborhood pizza joint when there are so many intriguing, deserving possibilities I might include on this list? For starters, Shorty's is the kind of community-minded gathering place that Atlanta has long been, well, short on. This town is no prize winner when it comes to pizza, either, and the passionate cooks who construct these crispy, balanced pies do so with consistent know-how.Their made-to-order guac radiates freshness. Most importantly, Toco Hills gravely needed a spirited, independent speakeasy among its growing onslaught of chains. Welcome to the neighborhood, y'all. 2884-B N. Druid Hills Road. 404-315-6262.
Quinones at Bacchanalia
Quinones is technically the third restaurant of Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison, chef/owners of Floataway and Bacchanalia. In many ways, though, the eight-course dinner served in this quietly sumptuous room tastes like an expanded and concentrated distillation of the Bacchanalia experience. Expect hushed but personable service, and the couple's signature subtle ways with luxurious, oh-so-seasonal ingredients. Daniel Rutiger's wine pairings give meals here the hint of adventure they need. 1198 Howell Mill Road. 404-365-0410. www.starprovisions.com.
Chef/owner Gary Mennie's much-anticipated riff on chophouses (and his zodiac sign) is an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of design elements and an updated nod to Americana cooking. Go for the glorified meat and potato dishes: melty goat cheese tart bound by crispy fried spuds; gutsy grilled Delmonico steak with thin bean casserole; supple pan-roasted filet mignon served with a swarthy cauliflower gratin. The Thursday special of roast duck scented with autumn fruits and spices has lingered in my memory for months. Need a conversation starter? Glance up at the whacked-out installation piece in the center of the room and let your imagination rip. 1745 Peachtree Road. 404-214-0641. www.taurusrestaurant.com.
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