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Gems in the tough 

Eight new favorites from 2003

Well, gang, 2003 was another slumpy year for restaurants in the ATL. High-end eateries opened infrequently. Many ventures that couldn't generate the elusive, alchemical balance it takes to make customers happy had to call it a day. Worthy restaurants in less frequented parts of the city were often half-full at best on weekday nights.

But all is not dour on the dining scene. Up-and-coming chefs with rising star power ambitiously set up shop. Buckhead buzz can still draw a crowd -- earsplitting Twist in Phipps Plaza and uneven Emeril's across the street proved that point deftly.

And if you're up for a little culinary adventure, there's always something new to try. Atlanta's ethnic restaurants continue to multiply, providing intriguing -- and frequently inexpensive -- glimpses into other cultures. Even if you're not so adventurous, places like Nam and Nan Thai put a glamorous spin on traditional Asian cuisines. They make it safe to venture into untraversed territory.

Without further discourse, then, here are my fave new restaurants I reviewed in 2003:

Iris

I'm perpetually jonesing for more neighborhood restaurants in Atlanta, places that reflect the vibe and the tastes of the folks who make up the surrounding community. Iris, in East Atlanta, is a spirited example of this genre. A former filling station redone with urbane sex appeal, it's by far the best dining option in this almost-once-maybe-still-yet 'hood of the moment. Chefs Nicolas Bour and Lein Schoe have crafted a smart menu that straddles the divide between American and European-style bistros. A properly unctuous duck confit over lentil de puy is by-the-book Francophile. Grilled pork tenderloin with mustard compote and New York strip paired with sweet potato, though, sing the Yankee palate electric. Waits can be long on weekends, but the pulsating bar scene helps you forget your hunger pangs. Bargain hunters, note: Iris serves a three-course, prix fixe dinner on Sunday nights for $27 (wine pairings only $5 extra).
1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-221-1300. www.irisatlanta.com.

Luxe

Savvy restaurateur Oscar Morales (of Oscar's in College Park) has made a winning attraction out of another lonely locale -- the old Mumbo Jumbo space downtown. The draw can mostly be attributed to chef Patti Roth's confident, idiosyncratic take on New American cuisine. Oozy potato croquettes with manchego and serrano, braised turnip and apple soup and grilled duck with sauteed pears and parsnip flan all demonstrate an acute sense of composition. If you're in need of a winter warm-up, try the grilled lemon chicken with custardy spoon bread. Desserts are scrumdidlyumptious (Roth spent time as a pastry chef at Bacchanalia). Service is Gen-X lovable. Need a last-minute reservation for Saturday night? This deserving underdog is the place to head.
89 Park Place, 404-389-0800. www.luxerestaurant.com.

MidCity Cuisine

Speaking of Mumbo Jumbo ... ex-Mumbo chef/owner Shaun Doty vacated his longstanding downtown spot mid-year and took up residence in an office building in Midtown. With the move came an invigorated new take on the American brasserie. What does that mean exactly? Gossamer proscuitto cut to order. Bangers and mash made with Niman Ranch sausages. A surprisingly delicate but luscious lasagna Bolognese that comes in a pan big enough to bake brownies in. There are homemade Kit Kat bars for dessert. The menu dashes all over the place, but Doty has an increasingly sure hand as he settles into his new digs. The wine list is a witty, rangy pleasure. And the dining room, once an Angelo and Maxie's steakhouse, looks fresh. If Carrie Bradshaw were in town, this is where she'd have a Cosmo with the girls (only eight more episodes -- waaaah!). MidCity's prices, by the way, are right in step with the times. You will not leave this restaurant with your wallet feeling plundered.
1545 Peachtree St., 404-888-8700. www.midcitycuisine.com.

Nam

From the black-clad Kinjo brothers who brought raw fish to a new level of hip with MF Sushi Bar comes this fine dining venture in the foreign, earthy world of Vietnamese cooking. Though I've seen "Magic Fingers" Chris show up in a suit to work the room a time or two, Nam is really Alex Kinjo's baby. He's outfitted the space with soft-porn lighting and his own drawings of longhaired beauties. The flavors of Vietnam, as presented here, are clean and light. It's just the sort of food one wants to eat after the glut of holiday parties. Nam's graceful female servers, who drift through the room in silvery robes, provide incisive tips when ordering. Newbies might venture into the menu by trying the Vietnamese crepe, claypot chicken and "shaking" filet mignon. I'm all about the steamed sea bass in opo squash with pork, mushrooms and lily flowers (don't make faces, it's a dazzling marriage of flavors). Kudos to the Kinjos for introducing another mind-opening eatery to Midtown.
931 Monroe Drive, 404-541-9997. www.namrestaurant.com.

Nan Thai

There are sure to be moniker mishaps down the road between Atlanta's two new upscale ethnic spots: "Let's meet at Nan." "Nam?" "No, Nan." Nan as in Nan and Charlie Nikomkul. They're the owners of the excellent, upscale Tamarind who opened their second restaurant in November, just up the street near the new 17th Street bridge. The dining room is a Far East fantasy -- open and multi-leveled with glimmering gold and crimson columns. Expect fragrant, carefully created Thai dishes similar to those at Tamarind. (Look for our review next week.)
1350 Spring St., 404-870-9933.

Rolling Bones

For barbecue-challenged Atlanta, Rolling Bones is a welcome addition to the city. It sho' don't look like a barbecue joint, though. From the street, the sleek '50s decor comes off as a gussied-up Johnny Rockets. Once you crack open the door, though, there's no mistaking that smoky aroma. Your choices are appropriately slim: Ribs, beef brisket, pork shoulder and grilled chicken. They're all good, though I'm particularly partial to the meaty, pink-hued ribs. The sauce is less sweety-tomato than most other places around town. If you're feeling particularly Southern, get a mess o' mustard greens on the side. There isn't much seating in the cold weather, but that's what the drive-thru is for.
377 Edgewood Ave., 404-222-2324. www.rollingbonesbbq.com.

Sala

Technically, Sala opened in 2002. But to me this Virginia-Highland spot really came to life in '03. After a rocky start with a chef who couldn't quite pull off the highbrow Mexican concept this new venture was aiming for, Sala's owners, the Fifth Group restaurant, brought in Todd Mussman to bring some finesse to the unfocused kitchen. Things are greatly improved. Go for the precisely seared swordfish paired with beans, guac and sweet pepper salad; shrimp enchiladas bubbling in their little crock with roasted tomato salsa and a modest cloak of cheese; and melty queso fundido bedecked with caramelized onions, roasted poblano strips and chorizo. The margaritas, which are bar-none my favorite in town, never needed any help. They ain't cheap, but when I need to forget my woes, I head straight to Sala's mod bar to down a Longhorn or Reales ... or five.
1186 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-7203. www.sala-atlanta.com.

Shiraz

Persian food is my current infatuation. It's an under-explored cuisine in this country that has a gentler, more sensual nature than its curried Indian ancestor. Housed in an angular space on the second floor of an Alpharetta strip mall, Shiraz introduces Persian to the 'burbs in a way all-American types can appreciate: the buffet. And, wow, what a buffet. Intricately flavored yogurt and eggplant dips to be spread on hot, crackery bread start off the journey. Next you move onto dark, slowly simmered stews of chicken or lamb. Then, just when you think you're done, the servers bring out a heaping platter of kebabs. Total gorge fest, but so worth the extra half-hour on the treadmill. Mmmmm, I'm salivating just thinking about it. Meet you there.
11950 Jones Bridge Road, Alpharetta. 770-751-7272.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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