Apart from the feeling that I'd returned to rural Georgia, where I had my own start in newspapering, my main impression of College Park was its lack of dining opportunities. With Bill, a fanatical bicycle rider, I became a regular at Shoney's for a couple of months. To this day, I can still hear the groomer of the salad bar's kale carpet prattling in my ear.
Now, as intown Atlanta becomes overpriced, people who don't want McMansions in Alpharetta are moving to College Park and East Point to take advantage of lower costs and quaint architecture. And that of course has created a market for a real restaurant.
Thus Oscar's (3725 Main St., College Park, 404-766-9688) arrived over a year ago. Owner Oscar Morales and Chef Todd Immel come from good culinary stock, both having worked at Mumbo Jumbo during its glory days when Guenter Seeger was directing the menu there. Morales was general manager and Immel was sous chef.
While echoes of Mumbo Jumbo can be found in the cuisine, the decor here is less self-conscious, if a bit Martha Stewarty. Located in a storefront across from the town's old railroad depot, the restaurant uses lots of maple-colored wood that picks up the rather soft light cast by peppermint-shaded lamps. Despite a brick wall lettered with a huge Coca-Cola logo, it's cozy without being sentimental, partly because the furnishings are almost Danish in their lines. There's an accent on the vertical -- bamboo rooted in tall bottles, long-stem straw flowers -- that happily doesn't show up in the cuisine's garnish but, perhaps, reminds you that you are very near the airport.
Prices, like those planes, are a bit high, too. It's a bit shocking to walk into a College Park restaurant to pay $26 for an entree, so don't think you'll be saving any money by driving the 15 minutes from Midtown to Oscar's. But, even though the restaurant attracts a lot of business travelers in airport area hotels, its cuisine also draws folks from all over Atlanta.
Service, I must say, wasn't topnotch the evening of our visit. The dining room seemed understaffed. Our server was busy with several large parties, so we waited quite a while just to place our orders. Then we waited and waited and waited for our food. Ultimately, the waiter came to our table and confessed that he'd not put our orders in. In fact, he didn't even remember what we'd ordered. It was annoying, but we were more than compensated by not being charged for our appetizers or dessert. We were offered nearly every other imaginable compensation short of a hot-oil massage. We forgive them.
Morales' food rocks. I started with a simple plate of al dente English peas with diced pecorino, barely touched with balsamic vinegar and dressed with a few herbs ($9). Every flavor rang clear as a bell. Occasionally, in the food that followed, I found Morales going a bit too heavy on the herbs. For example, Wayne ordered Ashley Farms chicken breast stuffed with kale served over polenta ($18). The moist chicken and greens were a terrific contrast, but the polenta had twice the thyme it needed.
On the other hand, a starter of Sardinian flatbread topped with bresaola, a bit of parmesan and a very light dose of black truffle oil ($10) was, like the peas, a nearly perfect rendering, with peppery flavors, crisp and oily textures, fragrances both musky and sharp. A very similar dish was on the menu last time I was at Mumbo Jumbo but it did not come close to Morales' version.
Electing an entree is difficult. Besides the chicken Wayne chose, there's codfish with clams and chorizo, mountain trout on flageolet bean ragout, a New York strip with Vidalia onions and bone marrow and pork loin with red cabbage and apple puree. I chose, at the waiter's recommendation, braised rabbit with pappardelle pasta, shitake mushrooms and pancetta ($23). Let me tell you, I've not encountered a better rabbit dish in our city. The tender boned rabbit is in a dark sauce, almost too rich for the quantity served but perfect for the sensual, earthy properties of the mushrooms and the broad noodles. The bowl is topped by a perfect round of crisp pancetta that is a high note in a bowl of luscious textures.
For dessert, we elected to split the lavender créme brulée ($6). We've eaten a similar dish in Provence several times and would like the lavender in Oscar's version turned up a few notches. Here, the custard seems only to have been passed quickly through a cloud of lavender, but, oh my. We licked the bowl.
Oscar's is open for lunch weekdays and accepts dinner reservations. Honestly, this was one of the best dining experiences I've had in months, even with the glitch in service. I commend Morales on his vision and Immel on his remarkable gift. If you don't want to drive the short 15 minutes there, you could take MARTA to the train station in College Park and walk a few short blocks to the restaurant. Whatever you do, go see what a passionately run restaurant can be like.
E-mail or call Cliff Bostock's voice mail, 440-688-5623, ext. 1504, with your dining comments.
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