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Murph's turf 

From deli to delicacy, this Highland joint is keeping up with the neighbors

In flush times and slumps, neighborhood restaurants must change with the neighborhood or die. When Murphy's opened 20 years ago, the Virginia-Highland/Morningside area was still genteel but scruffy, a mix of young fixer-uppers, students, elderfolk and immigrants from both the North and the Northside. Tom Murphy, then a grad student himself, planned the restaurant as a project for a marketing class at Georgia State University. The concept? An all-hours deli serving breakfast, sandwiches, carry-out baked goods, late-night coffee and upbeat attitude. It worked. Success came, and came fast. The little deli around the corner from the intersection of Virginia and Highland avenues soon took on Irish and Southern overtones. Blue-plate specials were added to the brunch-ola menu. The bakery line expanded -- and the customers kept lining up.

The neighbors finished their internships, traded in their Volkswagen vans, fixed up their houses and started sending the kids to Paideia. Murphy moved the business to Ground Zero --next door to Taco Mac on the Virginia-Highland corner -- and started hiring real chefs.

He's still at it. In a sort of millennial double whammy, he's brought in executive chef Sean McLendon, formerly of Van Gogh's and Chops, and managing partner Mike Tuohy, a Californian who made his name here with crab cakes and fusion pastas at Chef's Café, and a string of other soft-edge cutters.

The current crisp-crusted crab cakes, though not lush with lump meat, make pleasant enough eating. As an appetizer, a sautéed pair comes with smoked pepper mayonnaise, which is fine, and a mound of marinated onions, peppers and carrots, which is overpowered by cumin seeds ($8.50). As a dinner main course, a third cake is added as well as a mound of shoestring fries ($16.50).

Fried calamari with cocktail sauce and smoked pepper mayonnaise, though nicely fried and dramatically presented on a napkin, are too heavily breaded and lack characteristic squid flavor ($7.50). Taken as fried dough balls -- squid-less pieces were almost as common as breaded rings in our order -- the starter was pleasant enough. Roasted vegetable bisque, a soup of the day, tasted like dried herbs, not vegetables ($4.50). Two bites were plenty. Ouch, ouch.

Entrée prices are comparatively more moderate. At just under $20, the top-priced item, New York strip steak rubbed with New Mexico red chili is well worth a series of cholesterol moments. Mine was grilled exactly as ordered, tender -- in short, quite lovely. Avocado butter gave the spicy rub a softening sweetness while roasted potatoes and a crown of tobacco onions provided steak-house appeal. Hungry bubbas need look no farther.

Still, the smoked pork chop with house-made applesauce, garlic mashed potatoes and undercooked, tepidly flavored French beans deserves attention at $12.50. Few city folks need more than one chop, especially when it's as flavorful as this. Ditto the applesauce. Canny customers will ask to substitute sautéed spinach for the haricots morts.

Take the sautéed Canadian turbot as it comes -- with lemon-caper brown butter, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and asparagus ($16). My slice of fish was cooked just enough, with a tight exterior and creamy interior, the whole set off by the sauce. Linguine with little neck clams, white wine, garlic, red pepper flakes and parsley, a fine old American combination, tasted great until I began removing the clams from their shells and mixing their saline broth with the sauce in the bowl ($13). Good bye Atlanta, hello Salt Lake. I felt my heart rate jump.

Murphy, Tuohy, McLendon and their kitchen elves might do well to taste dishes as they are seasoned. Even the most experienced cook should sometimes measure salt and spices, not simply toss on what's known in the trade as a "chef's handful" of flavorings. Heaven knows what the special called seafood cioppino tasted like. A man at the next table ordered it and said he enjoyed it. His waitress expressed amazement when he later explained that a real San Francisco cioppino is a fish stew made with tomatoes, not a seafood platter with saffron -- no matter how tasty.

What did she know and when did she know it? Murphy's tableside troops are extremely slick and competent, reading their customers as if clairvoyant, recovering well when caught out. Most of the males sport facial hair -- it's that kind of laid-back neighborhood -- and all are neatly dressed in chinos, white dress shirts, neckties and dark aprons.

The uniforms fit the setting -- exposed red bricks, glass walls, polished wood, heavy flatware, attractive stemware and unusual, stained-glass lamps on tabletops. The mood is casual but crisp. A splendid list of mostly unfamiliar wines from California and France backs up the kitchen. Tuohy takes particular care with wine education, also offering a featured wine, house wines, three-slosh flights and weekly tastings.

On the whole, I prefer chocolate to Chardonnay. Pastry chef Armando Escutia's large éclair -- it's about the size of a hotdog bun -- was gooey and sweet, dense and dusky, chocolately and custardy in all the right ways ($4.50). But warm, sour cream apple pie with vanilla ice cream, the latter much too cold, reminded me of those soggy, unbaked wonders sold in health-food snack bars ($4.95). So maybe the neighborhood hasn't changed that much. I complained but I ate it.

Murphy's packs meals to go -- including a stunning variety of Escutia's baked cookies, cakes and tarts, wines by the bottle, sandwiches and snacks. Call-ahead seating and valet parking after 5 p.m., both a boon in the busy neighborhood, are offered as well. What a deal. What a deli.

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