Roman holiday 

Two restaurants that bring ancient trends to modern cooking

The ancient Romans were never satisfied to eat something as it occurred naturally. Petronius, the "arbiter of elegance" in the court of Nero, satirized this fetish in the banquet scene in Satyricon. A roasted boar, for example, is surrounded by pastry piglets, and when it is cut open, birds fly out of its innards. Honey-dipped dormice are devoured like candy.

There's something of the compulsion to transform food into different forms, to shock the senses and the sensibilities, present in some contemporary cooking. Oh, it doesn't go to the vulgar extent parodied in Satyricon, despite the warning I heard in an infamous sermon by Jimmy Swaggart years ago. He warned that our preoccupation with "fancy food" presaged the collapse of civilization, just as it did in Rome.

I visited two restaurants last week that bring the Romanesque cooking trend to mind, Lush and Bazaar, but both successfully.

Lush (913 Bernina Ave., 404-223-9292) is a gorgeous new vegetarian cafe in Inman Park. An employee of the hidden restaurant told me that the space was actually developed for a planned Mexican restaurant that did not get off the ground. It's hard to see Mexico in the elegant dining room and bar here, but then this is also a huge departure from what we expect in a vegetarian restaurant -- annoying cheerfulness, proudly undecorated people in cruelty-free shoes and punitively over-seasoned food.

Sit on the patio here. It's beautifully gardened. The one drawback, which made me laugh since it's rather contrary to the healthful ambiance, is the profusion of smoking citronella candles capable of launching an asthma attack. There's a mosquito problem. The servers even handed us repellent-soaked wipes to keep the critters away. I'm sure it was a natural chemical.

I compare the food here to the Roman style because, like much vegetarian cuisine, it now and then pretends to be something else. My entree, for example, featured "mock lobster ravioli." The dish, seasoned with a sweet chile-banana salsa and a roasted tomato-tarragon sauce, was invigorating, but the "mock lobster" was bizarrely misnamed. I will never understand this habit of vegetarian cooks. Why not just call it what it is, whatever the hell it is? Texturized yam-yucca-soy-tofu-blend ravioli?

Most other dishes here don't belong at the Satyricon banquet. They are what they are. There's an especially bracing gazpacho with a créme fraiche made of "avocado/lime tofu" and a giddy cucumber, mint and creamy tofu soup, both chilled. A latke starter is less successful. Like everything here, it has a glamorous presentation -- love those purple chard sprouts! -- but the three little latkes made of potato, corn and caramelized Vidalia onions tasted like overcooked socca, totally reliant on a rosemary-apple chutney for flavor.

Wayne's entree, the Mexican classic of chiliaquiles, was my favorite dish. It's made with the usual stale tortilla chips, along with Kaas cheese, black bean chili, charred tomatoes, grilled eggplant and zucchini, topped with guacamole. I usually run from Mexican-style food in vegetarian restaurants -- the flavors are often overwhelming and predictable -- but this dish worked.

But the most amazing items we sampled were desserts. The banana pie, completely vegan, is as good as any cream pie you'd find at a church homecoming. Spring rolls full of sweetened oats, papaya, shredded coconut and raisins are chewy and gooey and served with a mango-ginger dipping sauce.

Despite my few complaints, Lush sets a new standard for vegetarian cuisine in our city.

Blais is back

Richard Blais, the brilliant young chef whose namesake restaurant crashed and burned after less than six months, is now chef at Bazzaar (654 Peachtree St., 404-885-7505). I like this new venue about 100 times more than the earlier one -- a sleek and gloomy Johnson Studio space that, despite its smooth eclat, was a poor stage for Blais' playful cuisine. Bazzaar is a completely kinky-looking space whose downstairs is full of plushly upholstered velvet furniture in bright blues and reds. It's perfectly appropriate for the man kinky enough to turn foie gras into a milkshake.

We ate upstairs in the regular dining room and my first compliment goes to the killer staff. Our server Ben, Waitron of the Week, is a place-kicker on Georgia Tech's football team with a wry demeanor and nicely gelled hair. If he decides not to be an engineer, he could make a career out of waiting tables.

Blais' cuisine is famously congruent with the Romans' habit of changing the form of food, injecting it with humor and saucing it oddly. His menu at Bazzaar -- arranged into micro-, mini- and macro-plates -- is smaller overall and the cuisine is not quite as capricious as it was at Blais. Nothing is served in baby food jars or tuna fish cans. It all seems a bit more grounded, but with fabulous flashes.

Ravioli made of layered prosciutto, for example, is served over fresh chopped figs with parmesan whipped until frothy and garnished with micro-arugula. Minced Kobe beef tartare with Asian pear is served with a raw egg that's been injected with sesame oil and cracked open on the plate. Delicate salmon is bathed in lime juice, served over cubes of sweet watermelon and topped by a hunk of avocado lathered with horseradish turned into foam.

Cubes of tofu are "chicken-fried" so they are crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside and served with "inflated" edamame -- light green cream that captures the essence of the Japanese soy beans -- and a hot pepper jelly (substituting for the usual sweet-and-sour emulsion). My favorite dish was the short rib, tender but not degraded, served in a shallow pool of beet juice, seasoned with dill and rye, and coated with horseradish foam. Wayne ordered mouth-melting halibut served over al dente "linquine" made of squid studded with springy prawns in an herbal-lemon butter.

For dessert, I had Key lime pie "deconstructed" into its three elements, while Wayne ordered a chocolate tart. Go for the pie. But, whatever, go. I have a feeling Blais won't be in our town long and you must experience his cuisine.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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