One week off 

Taking a break from criticism to enjoy the no-brainers

People imagine writing a dining column is fun. It can be, but it can also be hell. Envious people never seem to realize that a critic eats far more mediocre and bad food than good food. And then there's that nasty little problem called food poisoning.

I've had some really bad food over the last month, so last week I cut myself a break by eating at a few of my favorite restaurants. You can't go wrong at these.

My favorite stop for dinner last week was Nam (931 Monroe Drive, 404-541-9997). This gourmet Vietnamese restaurant, created by Alex and Chris Kinjo, is one of the best things to ever happen to the intown dining scene.

Although Vietnamese restaurants abound along Buford Highway, there was no such food in the Midtown area until the Kinjo brothers, who earlier opened the delectable MF Sushibar on Ponce de Leon Avenue, decided to put their talented mother to work.

With the opening of Com, on Buford Highway, Nam has encountered some pretty stiff competition in terms of creative recipes. But for first-rate gourmet dining, Nam is still on top. Its dining room, a masterpiece of sublimated erotica, is unlike any in the city. My only criticism is that Nam does not seem to have added any new dishes to its menu in a very long time.

But we ate as well as always: seafood spring rolls, lotus root salad, claypot caramelized shrimp and lemongrass tofu. The tofu was the best dish we sampled, and vegetarians should run to try this cheap dish. The crispy fried tofu was rolled in minutely diced lemongrass and served with a sauce of chilies, red onions and bell peppers. You won't believe it's tofu.

I love claypot dishes. These feature meats or seafood cooked in the clay pot with fish sauce, which reduces and caramelizes the other ingredients. My favorite is pork cooked this way. Unfortunately, the cooking method virtually requires overcooking shrimp, so I found the texture of this version wanting.

Lotus root salad is light and crunchy, as are the seafood spring rolls.

The service at Nam, by indescribably beautiful women, remains A-plus.

Where have I been eating more than anywhere else lately? The Globe (75 Fifth St., 404-541-1487). Dinner or lunch, I seem to end up here several times a week.

What do I like so much about it? There's the terrific Jetsons-go-Italian style of the dining rooms, the pleasant patio, the great crowd that ranges from Georgia Tech students to Marietta City Councilman Johnny Sinclair. But most of all, there's the relatively inexpensive menu of Joshua Perkins' elegant cooking.

My favorite appetizer there recently has been the simplest: a wedge of manchego cheese, aged with rosemary, served with seeded crackers and a little cup of amazingly sweet and bitter chestnut honey. My favorite entrée has been the tandoori duck breast with rosewater-dried fruit salad and honey yogurt. Sound bizarre? Try it.

I've also enjoyed the paella and the spicy spaghetti. For lunch, I like the salad and sandwich made with seared lamb. For dessert, I always want the pineapple upside-down cake.

Eclipse di Luna (764 Miami Circle, 404-846-0449), long my favorite for tapas but slipping in recent months with an abbreviated menu, has come back with a greatly expanded one. I lunched there with friends last week on an assortment of the city's most authentic Spanish tapas.

But my main purpose in mentioning the restaurant is to launch an excursus about service. At the end of our meal, I ordered two shots of espresso with some steamed milk. When the server brought it to the table, my friend Brad Lapin and I marveled at the quantity of espresso. "Wow, it looks like 10 shots," I said.

"God, you're bitchy!" the server barked.

"Hey," I joked, "Do you want a tip?"

"Frankly, I don't care if you leave me one or not," he said.

Whoa! He later apologized and I still have no clue what prompted his explosion, although Brad is sure it was an assessment of my general personality.

Notice something? I'm not mentioning the server's name because I don't want the restaurant to take action against him. I believe it was a case of playfulness getting out of hand.

I recently learned that a restaurant fired a server because of my depiction of her in this column. The depiction, of a loopy personality I enjoyed, was taken as serious criticism. This happened a year or two earlier with another restaurant, and when I called the server to find out what I could do, she said she didn't want to work for anyone so hypersensitive. She had already gotten a new job.

But it makes me wonder. I wouldn't want to spend the day waiting on people like me (or Brad, who tips like he's still living in Italy). I ask that restaurant owners contact me before they fire anyone on the basis of what I write here.

End of excursus.

My final visit to a favorite spot had me at lunch at Fritti (309 N. Highland Ave., 404-880-9559). I was with my friend Brad again and I dreaded taking him there. Since he lives most of the time in Rome, I knew he'd find the pizza lacking. But then Brad is a man who told me he detested the Colonnade after he wiped his plate clean with the corner of a yeast roll.

Indeed, he liked the pizza at Fritti very much, but after one bite wiped his mouth, shrugged and declaimed, "It's good, but it's not Italian."

Knowing the great trouble owner Riccardo Ullio has undertaken to recreate authentic Italian pizza, I wished he were there to answer Brad. In truth, though, Brad's criticism was my own initial one -- that the crusts are not crisp enough. But, believe me, they are far crisper now than in the beginning, when every pizza had a puddly center.

Any pizza you order here is delicious, and don't consider dining at Fritti without ordering the fried mushrooms, redolent of white truffle oil.


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