It pains me that one of them, Pastificio Cameli (1263 Glenwood Ave., 404-622-9926), has long been my favorite in the area for inexpensive Italian dining. George Cameli opened the restaurant a few years ago after scoring success with his Cameli's Gourmet Pizza Joint on Ponce de Leon.
I knew that sales at the restaurant had declined for some time, but the attempted remedy -- a complete change in concept to vegetarian food -- took me by surprise. The sign there is now a big red "V" for "vegan" and "vegetarian," with the restaurant name shortened to Cameli's and reduced to micro-script.
I don't object to vegetarian food on principle. I love the food at the city's vegetarian Indian restaurants, like Udipi. And I know that American vegetarian dining can be extravagant and creative -- though no such thing has existed in Atlanta since the closing of In the Shade Cafe, where Michael Elsen introduced Atlanta to something more than the usual over-seasoned crypto-ethnic dishes like enchiladas or lasagna stuffed with tofu.
I'm afraid the new Cameli's isn't very creative at all. Your first clue, before even seeing the menu, is the very ordinary salad bar with the three kettles of soup -- a depressing reminder of institutional cafeterias, Shoney's and 1970s-style vegetarian cafes. I could endure the funky nostalgia if the food delivered. It does not.
A soup or salad is complimentary with your entree. Wayne and I opted for soup -- cream of mushroom and potato for me, chili for him. While I found the mushroom soup tasty enough, the chili demonstrated the principal error of nearly all mediocre vegetarian cooking -- a heavy hand with the spices, as if to compensate for the lack of meat. The tofu and soy "meat" were acceptable enough but the wretched taste of chili powder made the stuff inedible to me.
We sampled two appetizers: the "raw power salad" and the "live hummus" ($5.75 each). The hummus is "live" in the sense that it is made with raw, sprouted beans, instead of being cooked like the usual stuff (which is also on the menu). Raw foods are trendy now and our server delivered quite an impressive rap about the energy these foods impart. In fact, I thought the hummus -- served with dates, celery, carrots and cucumbers for scooping -- wasn't too bad, though I couldn't begin to eat all of it. Maybe I got an energy overload.
Wayne's power salad was the better choice -- mixed greens with almonds, olives, avocados and tomatoes in a "live" tahini dressing. The taste of the olives permeated the entire salad in a quite pleasant way.
Dinner entrees happily include a few of George Cameli's former Italian dishes -- like the gorgonzola-filled ravioli ($11) and a good fettuccine Alfredo ($9.25). But we ordered new dishes. "Nolognese" is a vegan version of Bolognese, of course, substituting a soy-based meat product. While Wayne ate it, I found its texture remarkably unpleasant and its taste acidic. The sauce covers whole-wheat spaghetti ($8.75).
Generally, I try to avoid any vegetarian dish that attempts to impersonate meat, so I ordered the simple grilled Portabella mushrooms over garlic mashed potatoes, sauced with an onion and brown-rice gravy, with green beans on the side ($9). I certainly liked it better than the phony Bolognese, but the plate needed some light touches.
The menu also includes sandwiches and tacos, available at lunch as well as dinner. Nearly everything is under $6 and that is the best thing I can say about this very strange change.
We also paid a visit to the Heaping Bowl (469 Flat Shoals Ave., 404-523-8030), the restaurant that helped inaugurate the gentrification of East Atlanta and has become a virtual institution there.
I still enjoy the restaurant's retro look, though the original dining room almost feels austere, compared to the cozier, smoke-filled bar area. The patio has been glassed-in to create a new dining room. It looks rather like a terrarium for humans.
The food is hit or miss. We enjoyed our appetizers. Fried green tomatoes, dusted in cornmeal, are served piping-hot in an enormous portion with a horseradish dill sauce ($5.95). Calamari is likewise fried in a cornmeal coating and is scattered with slivers of onion ($6.95). It's tender and hot. My complaint is the marinara, reduced to the texture of mud the evening of our visit.
Entrees were enormously disappointing. The daily special, beef stroganoff, reminded me of TV dinner-versions of the stuff I'd eat while stoned in the middle of the night in my dorm room ($8.95). The beef is cut into pieces so tiny they stick in your teeth and the sauce is pink, oily and nondescript. It's all dumped over noodles. Do not order it. Go, instead on a Sunday night, and order the pot roast, which has been very good during my earlier visits.
Wayne's entree, "VooDoo Pork," was only slightly better ($10.95). Pieces of pork tenderloin are served in a bowl swimming with the meat's marinade of bourbon and cider, with slices of spiced pears. I find sweet treatments of pork generally tiresome, but this dish would be acceptable if the pork weren't so dry that eating it was like going through a bowl of chewing gum. Well, it slowed Wayne's conversation down considerably.
Saying something nice. I did have one very good meal last week -- brunch at Eno. This Mediterranean cafe on Peachtree serves some of the city's most interesting grazing fare at its bar. So I was hopeful that brunch, which I normally despise, would feature some creative plates without the usual folderol of the city's brunch palaces.
I was right. Wayne started with a simple gorgonzola and endive salad with pears served two ways while I had a plate of asparagus with shaved Manchego cheese, sweet onions and olive oil. Both gorgeous plates of intelligently contrasted ingredients cost only $4.50. Try to find anything comparable in town.
Our entrees were just as good. Wayne had migas Anadaluz -- fried eggs over chorizo, pancetta, onion, garlic, peppers, prosciutto and grapes. For me: grilled beef tenderloin tips on skewers. Marinated in coriander, cumin, nutmeg and oregano, the meat was served with roasted tomato and crispy browned potatoes. These dishes, served with a big plate of bacon, potatoes and zucchini and a second side of fruit, were only $11.50.
Eno, incidentally, has opened a wine and cheese shop next to the restaurant called Barrelman which I think is Midtown's best by far.
I've received positive notices from friends about Madras Cafe's newly expanded menu. ... We need a bakery here in Grant Park. Foodz 2 Go has closed and Kim Vidal has left Carroll Street Cafe. Even the old bakery in East Atlanta has closed. What shall we do?
KILL IT!! Love you guys!
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