If you want to experience serious head-spinning, try to follow the restaurant economics in our city. Fine dining — meaning expensive dining — continues to wane. Some restaurants close, some run constant specials, others reinvent themselves.
A good example is the sorta-kinda new 5th Street Café (800 Peachtree St., 404-228-2819, www.fifthstreetcafe.com). The space it occupies was originally opened in 1999 by Doug Strickland as Eno Restaurant and Wine Bar. Like an Italian enoteca, it featured quality wines and, at the bar, some delicious small plates that were unique in our city. The dining room offered a full menu of Mediterranean-style dishes.
Then, last year, Strickland sold Eno to Zaza Pachulia, the Hawks' $19-million center, and it became re-branded as Eno by Zaza. Meanwhile, chef Eli Kirshtein put the restaurant on the map with a stint on Bravo's "Top Chef." After that, he left the restaurant. Then, a few months ago, it closed altogether. Meanwhile, Pachulia joined with A.D. Allushi and Ian Winslade (ADI Restaurant Concepts) to open Buckhead Bottle Bar in another constantly reincarnating location. Finally, last week, the three reopened Eno by Zaza as 5th Street Café.
Got it? There's more. The café's interior, like Bottle Bar's, was redesigned by Patti Krohngold, who is most famous for her design at Tongue and Groove. Her work, stylish and witty, has turned 5th Street Café into a black-and-white bistro. The space is more open and less brooding than in its original form.
For the present, Winslade, a major talent in our city, is working as chef at the café. He's best known for his stint at Bluepointe. He's also worked at Shout, Market and Spice Market, among others from here to his native England. Allushi has as impressive a résumé working the management side of restaurants.
The menu, like the more informal look of the restaurant, is a clear sign of the times. Most entrée prices are well under $20, while appetizers and salads run from $6 for soup of the day to $14 for carpaccio. It's not cheap, but it's an obvious effort to keep prices manageable for a range of customers. The food is mainly straightforward, slightly French and kind of homey. There is much more emphasis on cocktails than wine.
Most of the food we ordered was worthy of Winslade's name. I especially liked the cod fritters, crispy oblongs of brandade-like filling, served over a pool of "sundried-tomato cream." I was less impressed with Wayne's ravioli with roasted corn. The pasta was a bit, and only a bit, on the gummy side for me, but was fully rescued by a spicy piperade fondue of peppers and tomatoes.
Wayne's entrée was the fish of the day, tilefish. You can order it steamed or sautéed. He chose steamed. Tilefish is an extremely lean white fish. It was unsauced and rather dry to my taste. So I probably would have gone for the sautéed version myself. The fish came with a choice of a mixed green salad or vegetables. He chose the latter, which turned out to be green beans.
If Wayne's dish was super-lean, mine was the opposite. I chose the short ribs with bacon, the second-most expensive dish on the menu at $22. Besides an 8-ounce fillet for $27, this was the only red meat offered. Also available were chicken Milanese, steamed mussels, potato gnocchi, cod steak, bacon-wrapped trout, spinach quiche and a croque madame.
My dish arrived as a big square of meat over mashed potatoes, green beans and pearl onions flavored with a red-wine vinaigrette. The bacon consisted of one pork belly-like strip and crunchy bits clustered in a mound. I don't expect short ribs to be lean, especially not if cooked with bacon, but this was one of the fattiest dishes I've encountered in memory. I would have been happier had half the fat been trimmed. Does that mean it didn't taste good? Hell no. But I could not finish it. It was instantly filling.
But not so filling that I didn't want to try one of pastry chef Deborah Craig's desserts. We ordered a single piece of her German chocolate cake. This was about the only cake I liked as a kid. (My mother bought them from Rich's bakery.) But, even then, I thought they were excessively iced. Craig's cake was perfect to me. The cake itself was dark chocolate and the coconut-filled icing was what it should be — icing, not the main attraction.
The restaurant is opening a pâtisserie in the adjoining space that used to vend wine and cheese. It will feature sandwiches as well as Craig's pastries. It should be open by the time you read this.
Complaints? One. We couldn't find any evidence of valet parking when we first drove up. It turned out to be on the Fifth Street side of the restaurant, but the attendant was out of sight.
And this is not really a complaint because it's to be expected in a new restaurant, but the kitchen was painfully slow getting dishes out — so slow that they weren't seating people even when plenty of tables were available. If you're there before a show at the nearby Fox Theatre during the next week or two, you'd better inquire about timing.
I've rarely heard anyone say to me, "Thank you for your patience," but our server did — and he compensated us with a $15 discount.
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