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Right angler 

A visit to Decatur's Café Lily will leave you hooked on salmon

When a friend introduced me to Decatur's Café Lily several months ago, he explained that he hadn't tried most of the items on the Mediterranean-Aegean-accented menu. "I always start with the rum-cured salmon," he explained. "And then maybe go with a beef entree. But the grilled salmon's pretty good, too."

He was right on all counts. Being no fan of uncooked fish, I let him summon the rum-cured salmon for himself. I began with a mixed salad of baby field greens topped with dead-ripe Roma tomato slices and puff-paste croutons dressed with balsamic vinaigrette ($3.95). Bingo. The salad was cold and crisp, the dressing added in the right amount, the portion large enough to share.

My buddy, meanwhile, was working through a huge platter of thin-sliced, Bacardi-cured salmon garnished with chopped egg and onions, capers, caviar, fennel remoulade and croutons($7.95). "You sure you don't want to try just a little of this?" he inquired, putting away a third or fourth slice of rummy fish. "For research purposes?"

It did look good. His enthusiasm was tempting. And so I took a wedge of toast, covered it with salmon, eggs and onion, and ventured a small bite. Bingo again. The fish tasted not exactly raw but sweetly, tartly saline, with just a hint of alcoholic friskiness that the eggs and onions nicely matched. "Works for me," I said, finishing the first piece of fish toast and assembling a second stack. "It's not smoked and it's almost, like, cooked."

Thoughtfully, the buddy plowed through a sample of my salad. "I'll be interested to hear what you have to say about the charbroiled salmon," he said between bites. "You want another crouton? More bread?" My mouth full, I nodded yeah twice.

Dinner at Café Lily starts with slices of grilled, Parmesan-topped Italian bread and a saucer of seasoned olive oil. Since starting to hit Café Lily on a regular basis, I've learned that a basket plus one warm refill is about right.

But back to salmon. Served as an entree, the large, skin-on steak is charbroiled to medium-rare -- an orange-pink center does it for me -- and served with mango-dried cherry salsa in a phyllo cup ($15.95). Nicely caramelized around the edges, juicy within, the fish is as delicious as can be found locally. I've since ordered it a couple of times more -- a smaller portion can be had with soup and salad at lunch -- and flavor as well as preparation have been first-rate every time.

Two orders of fresh, meaty tuna -- grilled atop a salade Nicoise ($11.95) and pan-seared with tapenade ($15.95) -- were almost as agreeable. The entree salad features hard-cooked eggs, tomatoes, boiled potatoes, tomatoes, pencil-like French beans, a heap of dressed greens and, upon request, anchovies. Besides its slathering of olive relish, the tuna steak entree is decked out with skin-on smashed potatoes.

The potatoes, variously described on the menu as seasoned with lemon, garlic or both, need some work. Evidently popular with either the owners or other customers, this muddy, unfocussed agglomeration turns up with distressing regularity alongside broiled salmon, tuna and beef steaks. You may be happier with French fries, pan-roasted potatoes or more salad. While I'm at it, let me warn against the tough, undercooked, under-seasoned French beans that appear with several entrees. To be charitable, let's say that Chef Anthony Pitillo is a master at preparing fish but has something yet to learn about dealing with vegetables.

It matters. A blue plate served last month, beef tips in a red wine reduction enriched with calvados, was marred only by the potatoes -- which admittedly work better with gravy than alone -- and the beans. A regular bistro plate that I did not try, beef Bourguignonne with herbed dumplings, may be a better choice ($11.95).

Entree prices are in line with modest Decatur tradition as well as with chef Pitillo's ample, rather than humongous, meat and fish portions. Aside from the rum-cured salmon, the mixed salad and a well-dressed Caesar ($4.25), I found little to recommend among first courses.

Shrimp beignets -- burger-sized, breaded-and-fried cakes composed of angel hair pasta, tiny canned-looking shrimp, chopped spring onions and seasonings -- taste nothing like shrimp and look unappetizingly biological once dissected. A side of Jezebel sauce -- crushed pineapple and horseradish -- does not help matters ($7.95 for three). Fried onion rings with the same sauce and a thick breading said to contain Moretti beer taste heavily salted and lack onion flavor ($5.50).

Let me also carp about the macaroni pie entree, which is not really a pie at all but a leathery pastry shell filled with pasta curls, porcini mushrooms, béchamel sauce, cheese and meat ragu. Aside from the pie shell, none of the components are really bad. But the proportion of flour (pastry, pasta, cream sauce) to everything else is so off balance that one might as well be eating hot, wet bread. You can buy a lot of bread for the asking price, $14.75.

Those who go easy earlier in the meal can reward themselves with slices of coconut cream pie and New York-style cheesecake, the two best among several desserts. Coffee is worth drinking as well. There is a full bar and a decent, reasonably priced wine list. Tea and soft drinks are refilled early and often.

Managed by co-owner Angelo Pitillo (Chef Anthony's dad), Café Lily's storefront dining room features orchids and other flowering plants, colored lights, comfy chairs, a bakery display case and soothing artwork. Service, mostly by women who combine seriousness of purpose with modulated inflections, is speedy and professional. Sidewalk tables somewhat hidden behind pots of rosemary and hibiscus should be perfect for after-sunset dining in the weeks to come.

Contact Elliott Mackle at 404-614-2514 or e-mail elkcam1@hotmail.com

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