First look: Dogwood 

Navigating Midtown Restaurant Week

"Today's the last day," our server, Rebecca, told us at Dogwood (565 Peachtree St., 404-835-1410). The restaurant was packed and noisy.

"So that's a good thing, eh?" I asked.

"It's been this way all week," she said. "I'm looking forward to the break."

So it went nearly everywhere that participated in this year's Midtown Restaurant Week. By the middle of the week, it was hard to find a table anywhere in Midtown. Two sets of friends told me they had 45-minute waits, even with reservations. I didn't have that experience at either restaurant I visited, but it's been a long time since I've seen Atlanta restaurants so crowded.

The attraction, of course, was the bargain of three courses for $25. These were drawn from the restaurants' regular menus. My entree alone at Dogwood would have cost $23 on the regular menu, so with dessert and an appetizer, I saved about $10.

Dogwood has only been open a few weeks. It's located in the Reynolds condominium building. There's valet parking on Linden Avenue, the cross street that separates the building from the original, closed Mick's.

Dogwood is co-owned by chef Shane Touhy and Scott Black. They are both veterans of the Blue Ridge Grill and their restaurant is another featuring innovative takes on classic Southern cuisine, made with local ingredients when possible.

The restaurant's refreshing design inhabits a two-story space with an upstairs dining loft, reached by a dramatic staircase (or an elevator if you have my knees). The space is airy, extravagantly windowed and features muted, woodsy colors and stimulating textures. Dogwood's designer gets special props for installing engaging art. It's all an elegant, updated look back to classic Southern decor. A sign in the front window warns that "appropriate dress" is required. I'm not sure what that means. The crowd during our visit was mainly informally dressed.

The food was good, especially for a restaurant hit with such high volume in its first few weeks. We started with the day's featured yellow, stone-ground grits with a choice of topping. I selected the fried oyster with spicy hollandaise and Wayne chose the Lowcountry shrimp. The a la carte price is only $4, but don't get too excited. That was for one shrimp and one oyster. Of the two, the shrimp was the better choice, especially if you want your grits with a kick. The oyster's hollandaise added creamy depth but little flavor to my dish.

We both picked the entrees available on the $25 special. Mine was a hunk of grilled salmon set atop grilled cornbread, with a "BLT" sauce featuring bacon, leeks and tomatoes in a champagne cream sauce. It was garnished with fried leeks. Very satisfying. I especially liked the novelty of a square of good-tasting cornbread under the fish.

Wayne picked the more complicated dish – rolled chicken breast stuffed with crawfish, spinach and Gouda, served over braised collards with natural jus. I don't usually like such dishes. They remind me of the old days of places like the Magnolia Room in Rich's downtown, where women wore white gloves, listened to piano music and ate Cobb salads and the occasional delicacy like rolled-up chicken. Despite the attack of nostalgia neuralgia, I did find the Dogwood's dish tasty – except for the crawfish that seemed to have taken on an unpleasant flavor by absorbing some of the greens' acidity.

For dessert, I had a dish my mother sometimes prepared – grilled lemon pound cake with ice cream. My mother was a compulsive baker of pound cakes, easily two a week for years. So any encounter with pound cake always makes me nostalgic. Here, instead of vanilla ice cream, the kitchen uses fancy Key lime gelato with broken butter cookies and it's served in a dish on the side. Simple and tasty.

Wayne chose a chocolate terrine with crème anglaise and pecan dust. It was all well and good, but in my nostalgic pound-cake reverie, I barely noticed the stuff.

There are many compelling dishes on the menu, including a starter of poppy-seed tempura quail with warm carrot salad and pecan-mint gremolata. Another starter features inevitable fried green tomatoes but stacks them with fresh shrimp, creole remoulade and chow-chow. There's a roasted Vidalia onion soup served with a cornmeal griddle cake. There's a glazed pork chop accompanied by a soufflé made with Silver Queen corn. Short ribs come with grilled peaches and sweet potato pancakes. Pan-fried Georgia trout is served with a succotash of corn, pinkeye peas and blue crab.

Lunch is also served. Entrees from the dinner menu are offered at reduced prices, but appetizer choices remain in the $11 to $14 range.

Here and there

As it happens, I also visited another Southern spot, JCT, for lunch recently and enjoyed a plate of shrimp and grits. This is a dish that appears on so many menus in town now, I couldn't name my favorite.

JCT and all the other lunch spots in the same development, such as Taqueria del Sol, Star Provisions and Figo, were swarming with customers during my visit on a Friday. It's hard at such moments to see that many restaurants in the city are suffering critically from the economic downturn

We also visited Beleza during Midtown Restaurant Week. It too was packed and we had to shove two itty-bitty tables together to dine with our friends. I was sorry to learn that the luxurious hydroponic garden wall in the restaurant had suffered significantly. It's on its way back but it's apparently quite an ordeal to keep it healthy. The only other such wall I've seen in a restaurant – in the defunct Bastide in Los Angeles – was outside.

With four of us buying the $25 special at Beleza, we got a broad sampling of the menu. The desserts were especially good.

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