Spice and Toast. Except for their one-word names, the two restaurants seem to have little in common. Toast is an informal cafe tucked behind the old Biltmore Hotel, while Spice, on Juniper Street, has tried its best to become a bastion of trendy glitz.
The chef at Spice has most recently been Paul Albrecht, one of the city's best known -- a mature talent who long ago created some of the city's finest restaurants with partner Pano Karatassos. The chef at Toast has been Drew van Leuvan, a young man whose earlier claim to fame was marketing fresh pastas to area restaurants.
Recently, though, Bon Appetit named Toast one of America's 50 hottest restaurants and, when Albrecht decided to leave Spice (793 Juniper St., 404-875-4242, www.spicerestaurant.com) reportedly to open his own place, van Leuvan assumed his position. I visited recently, only a week into van Leuvan's tenure, and already found the cuisine significantly improved to my taste.
It's not that I ever found the cuisine at Spice bad. The restaurant has been open nearly five years now and definitely improved during Albrecht's two-year stint. Prior to that, there was way too much emphasis on presentation and the kind of giddy fusion that makes the eyes pop out and the palate snooze. Albrecht brought more depth to the cooking, though he definitely adhered to the complex fusion.
Van Leuvan is in the process of devising his own menu but has already shortened and reinterpreted much of Albrecht's pre-existing menu. The gazpacho touched with habanero crème fraiche is simply the best version I have encountered outside Spain. And "simply" is the right word. It depends on sparkling diced tomatoes and a good olive oil. Slightly sour, slightly sweet, slightly piquant, slightly acidic, slightly oily. Little squares of bread garnished the soup.
The same clarity of flavors and freshness showed up in Wayne's two "tacos" of sushi-grade tuna and salmon. Puffy, fried, crackly pastry held the creamy fish, along with romaine, cilantro cream and salsa verde.
For my entree I chose a special created by van Leuvan that I want again ... and again. He puts steamed mussels, removed from their shells, over gnocchi and haricots verts with stewed tomatoes and a lobster jus. Can you believe that? You get your custardy gnocchi played against your al dente but creamy mussels, contrasted with your crunchy green beans, and you get the flavor of the mussels turned way up by the lobster jus.
Wayne ordered an entree from the regular menu -- halibut pan-seared until the skin was crispy, served with ricotta-filled cappelletti, edamame and tomato fondue. He wiped the plate until it was glistening white.
Desserts were slightly less impressive. The rosemary-chocolate truffle cake with butternut sorbet was tasty but absolutely the most unphotogenic dessert I've ever seen. Imagine you are walking through a cow pasture and your foot lands on this dessert. The bread pudding with crème anglaise and strawberries was a better looker and just as good.
What else? The restaurant generally seems to be less self-consciously glamorous these days. Indeed, we dined on Halloween under a canopy of orange twinkle lights and were happy to join a diverse crowd, many of whom did not wear black Armani or blind me with their bleached teeth. Our server, Jill, was a trooper. To test her, I made a few absurd requests -- "butter with salt, for God's sake!" -- and she replied without even biting her lip. I don't know how waiters stand their work, but she's a pro.
Here and there
I'm falling in love with MetroFresh, the new cafe at Midtown Promenade. I picked up some veal-white bean stew that made a perfect midnight snack last week. You should make a point of trying the cafe's pastas, too. Penne with a meat sauce, served with a spinach salad with a rich vinaigrette, reminded me of my mother's cooking ...
Longtime Atlanta foodies will remember Alix Kenagy, whose two restaurants -- Partners and Indigo Coastal Grill -- were among the city's favorites and launched the revitalization of Morningside. Alix moved to Brunswick and opened Cargo Portside Grill but is now living on Jekyll Island and her daughter Kate has taken over.
I dined there recently with four others, including my brother, and had a good meal. We shared appetizers -- my fave was the crab cakes -- and I had a flawless salmon with asiago potatoes for an entree. Cargo remains the best restaurant in the area.
Department of Shameless Nepotism: My brother Robert, called "Boz" by everyone on St. Simons Island, operates three popular restaurants there that are totally reflective of his Robin Williams-like personality. They are all decorated by his wife, Mindy ... I mean Mary.
The most popular is Gnat's Landing (logotype courtesy of a Mad Magazine artist), a great place to get drunk and eat fried pickles and seafood. At the end of the bar you'll probably encounter my 80-year-old father, who is happy to tell you what is wrong and what is right with the food and his children. A second Gnat's is opening in Statesboro soon.
The wackier restaurant is Bubba Garcia's, a Mex-style place where my niece and nephew staged regular after-hours costume parties too politically incorrect and bizarre to describe in these grown-up pages.
Jocelyn, my niece, was managing the place and had a major showdown with her father when he insisted on putting televisions in the restaurant. Robert won but Jocelyn, who lived in a vintage '60s, hippie-decorated VW van with her brother for a few months while touring America, is running away to Colorado. Carlton, my nephew, who was chef at the restaurant, has already run away to Orlando to teach handicapped children.
The third restaurant is a funky pizza joint, Badda Bing, whose most conspicuous objet d'art is a enamel assemblage on plywood I made during my brilliant career as a high school artist.
I hope this goes a long way in explaining the love of conformity you undoubtedly detect in my writing. It runs in the family.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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