Finders keepers 

Ali-Oli combines sumptuousness and simplicity

If the only thing Ophelia Santos did was go around the city decorating restaurants, that would be contribution enough to the local culinary scene. As it is, the owner of Vino! has combined sumptuousness and simplicity on the plate as well as in the surroundings of her latest venture, Ali-Oli Restaurant & Gourmet-To-Go.

At its heart, Ali-Oli is a paean to the Catalan reverence for garlic and olive oil -- the ali and oli -- and to their mayonnaise-like combination, aioli. Nothing fancy. The impact comes first from the quality of the ingredients and then from the way in which they are put together.

But before that and the gorgeous decor can be appreciated, one has to find the restaurant. No simple thing, inasmuch as the parking decks at Lenox Marketplace, across from Phipps Plaza at the intersection of Peachtree Road and Oak Valley Road, are a maze and a mess. The easiest way to find Ali-Oli is to drive in from the Oak Valley Road side, taking the up ramp. It will be to your immediate left.

Entering from the deck side, rather than by the more formal Oak Valley Road entrance, puts you at the Gourmet-To-Go end of things. Here, one can pick up a bottle of olive oil or a set of espresso cups or the same sandwiches available on the lunch menu: roasted leg of lamb with caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and Chianti mayonnaise on rosemary bread ($9), for example, or grilled chicken PLT ($7) -- pancetta, lettuce and tomato with basil mayonnaise on toasted Tuscan bread.

But if you are like me and crave a more sensuous visual and olfactory experience, you should continue into the hallway beyond, to the exquisite private dining room and the chic and serene main dining room.

In this high-ceilinged yet intimate room, silvery-blue walls shimmer like swatches of silver leaf, an effect produced by painted cross-strokes. A small stained glass dome in the ceiling punctuates what is otherwise a soothing blue-and-taupe color scheme. A massive antique bar (from Chicago, I'm told) stretches the entire length of the room. With the weather turning cooler, it won't be long before a fire flickers below the impressive French mantle.

Settle into the comfortable banquettes or contemporary chairs and be immediately captivated by small copper tubs of chewy, tangy bread and, yes, a saucerful of fragrant olive oil. Frankly, both are so good it is difficult to pry oneself away long enough to glance at the menu.

That menu will be changing a bit shortly, so not everything I describe may be featured in exactly the same way by the time you go. But you can expect certain things, more or less, all of which will be enhanced by a selection of wines from Spain, France and Italy. Currently there are three reds and three whites from Spain and Italy, and four of each from France.

It is entirely possible to make a satisfying meal from the appetizer section alone. Especially when an order of the delicate and aromatic steamed mussels sambuca ($8) -- with garlic and olive oil, of course -- brings two dozen good-sized mussels to the table. And sometimes one doesn't want to clutter the memory of the lightly fried calamari ($8) and its accompanying dipping sauces, a particularly lemony aioli and a spicy tomato sauce, with anything else.

Equally enticing is the grilled savory country bread ($7) topped with prosciutto and roasted peppers; thinner than thin salmon carpaccio with capers, fresh cucumbers and tomato salsa ($8); or tasty slices of the day's homemade sausage ($7).

Any of the salads will please you with their beautiful fresh, clean greens. Each is dressed differently: white balsamic vinaigrette on baby greens with pine nuts and sliced gorgonzola ($8); warm pancetta dressing over grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers and goat cheese on baby greens ($8); oil and vinegar on radicchio, arugula and Belgian endive topped with pecorino romano cheese ($7).

Whether fish, meat, pasta or fowl, Ali-Oli's entrees generally follow this pattern: The main ingredient is prepared simply -- roasted, grilled, seared, steamed -- then finished with an elegant or unusual dressing. No overworked, over-accessorized extravaganzas cluttering the eye-catching black and white dinner plates.

Thus, roasted chicken ($15) shines through its rosemary, sage and white wine accents. Pan-seared sea scallops ($19) glisten beneath a Champagne-tarragon sauce. Robust tuna, grilled rare, is balanced by sundried tomatoes and capers in a piquant balsamic reduction. The distinctive flavor of a juicy New York strip steak ($18) is deepened by sauteed wild mushrooms and onions caramelized to a state of sticky sweetness. (The lunch version is an open-face sandwich.)

Ali-Oli features several dishes seldom encountered in Atlanta restaurants, including polenta as a side ($4) and a daily risotto ($9) at lunch. If you have never tried fish baked in parchment (market price), here is your opportunity. The nightly fish special (trout stuffed with salmon and crabmeat on a recent visit) is presented this way. The parchment treatment produces exceptionally moist fish, and the moment the aromatic steam is released from the paper package is a treat all its own.

Even if you do not ordinarily want dessert, I urge you to order the panna cotta ($6) whenever it is offered. This is the silkiest of all custards, vaguely sweet and incomparably light. Paired with seasonal berries, it is the perfect end to a meal, no matter what the meal was.


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