Making Cenci of East Atlanta 

New vegetarian in the Village

East Atlanta Village remains one of the city's most compelling intown neighborhoods. Without the self-consciously alternative hipsters of Little Five Points or the wealthy baby strollers of Virginia-Highland, EAV is the kind of place you can still be relatively poor with style.

For reasons I don't quite understand, though, the neighborhood's restaurants seem to open and go belly-up with unusual frequency. (I hear that astronomical rents are part of the problem.) The bad news is that great spots such as Iris and the original Camelli's close. The good news is that new restaurants such as Cenci (1259 Glenwood Ave., 404-627-0533) open.

Cenci is, hands down, the coolest vegetarian restaurant I've ever visited in our city. There have been restaurants with more complex food, such as Lush, but none with so much style. From the bare, candlelit, burnt-orange walls to the gorgeous staff and cool jazz, Cenci is pure urban elegance. And the food during my one visit was very good. Honestly, it's not often I'm anxious to return to a vegetarian restaurant. I can't wait to get back to Cenci.

"It's like Alexander the Great designed the menu," Wayne said. "It stretches from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia." Uh, yeah.

The restaurant serves dairy-free vegan as well as less restrictive vegetarian dishes. There are straightforward vegetable dishes and others featuring meat substitutes such as seitan.

I started with "collard green rolls" – basically garlic-tinged egg rolls stuffed with collards, shredded cabbage, onions and "veggie smoked ham." Obviously cooked when ordered, they were served piping hot with a crispy but very thin skin. Unlike your usual egg roll, the ingredients' flavors weren't turned into an unrecognizable hybrid. In fact, the rolls were so flavorful, I didn't eat much of the very sweet chili sauce served with them.

Wayne's starter was a Mediterranean plate featuring tabouli, hummus and grape leaves. The tabouli included diced, juicy tomatoes that added a powerful fruity note. The grape leaves, unlike the usual, stressed the leaves, not the filling. Cenci's chef fills the tender, loosely wrapped leaves – which had not been drowned in olive oil – with straightforward fluffy rice. Wonderful, oil-free simplicity. The plate's hummus was the only dish we found wanting. It was a bit dry and, contrary to the grape leaves, could have used a shot of olive oil.

You'll also find starters such as scallion pancakes, gazpacho and mock sushi, such as spicy salmon rolls and California rolls with mock crab. There are also salads, which can serve as entrees, and sandwiches. I decided to order a sandwich featuring grilled eggplant and zucchini, along with mixed greens, sauteed onions, sun-dried tomatoes and chipotle mayo, all on a slightly chewy, warmed roll. Also available are a blackened "fish" sandwich, a "turkey" sub, a veggie burger, a Philly cheese "steak," a "meatball" sub and a portobello-mushroom wrap.

Entrees are more complicated – such as seafood jambalaya, a "shrimp" stir fry, black-pepper "steak" and, as Wayne ordered, "fish" tacos. These, too, were surprising. The faux grilled fish chunks were wrapped in flour tortillas with avocado sauce and salsa. On the side were black beans flavored with garlic and white rice. You won't miss reality.

Cenci also serves fruit smoothies and juices. We ordered a juice blending apples, carrots and ginger. There are no desserts on the menu, though they may be added in the future. I'll be interested to hear comments from vegetarians about the food here.

Down the street

After the popular Iris closed, it was replaced by Crave, which in turn closed briefly and has now been reborn with the same owners as Haas Bar (1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-230-6177). There was some discussion on one of the online cuisine sites concerning the restaurant's new name. Does it refer to Haas avocados? Does it refer to a genus of pears (I've never heard of)?

No, it refers to the cross street where it is located.

The restaurant has been somewhat remodeled. There are new booths and a rear dining area has been converted into a loungey space. We still prefer the seating on the patio in front of the former gas station. The menu is now all small plates, befitting the stronger orientation toward a bar.

We did find the food improved. Among the dishes we liked were an arugula salad, honey-ginger-glazed chicken wings and spare ribs with red mole and grilled pineapple.

Less satisfying were gamy-tasting short ribs braised in garlic-black-bean sauce with baby bok choy and decent confit duck unfortunately served over rubbery shiitake mushrooms. A slice of cheesecake was good enough.

There are plenty of other temptations, including seared lamb chops, scallops, red-curry shrimp, cornmeal-fried oysters, ratatouille slaw and a wild-mushroom ragout.

Here and there

Mike Boyles, owner of Compound nightclub, will be opening Luckie Food Lounge downtown, near the Aquarium, this summer.

Says a press release: "Imagine seven miles of LED lighting, 2,200 gallons of salt water in three aquariums including a 28-foot aquarium behind the sushi bar, 80 hidden speakers throughout and all-day dining from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., seven days a week. Luckie will also feature Charm, an adjacent gourmet sundry shop and magazine loft, selling boxed lunches, 18 flavors of homemade gelato, coffee, pastries and sushi-to-go."

Only seven miles of LED lighting? Bummer! No mimes in aquatic drag? Double bummer! ...

I lunched recently with my friend Chandelier at Fritti. The menu now includes a selection of pizzas certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association. They feature an amazingly billowy crust, topped with bufala mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes and other ingredients. Chandelier, incidentally, will be joining me on road trips for CL's new food blog, Ominivore Atlanta. Indeed, he will be chauffeuring me in his new zillion-dollar BMW that actually grabs your hips and holds you in place as the car rounds a corner. It's not every dining critic who goes to work now and then in a sex toy. ...

Pearl has opened in Castleberry behind the ultracool Baltimore Crab and Seafood Co. ... A Mexican restaurant is opening on North Highland Avenue, across from Highland Bakery.

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