taking the Hi road 

Visits to Dish, Harry and Sons and Muse Art Cafe

You probably never heard of it, but once upon a time, a breakfast joint called Eats 'n' Sweets was the best place to eat on North Highland. I'm going back, what, 25 years, I think, when I lived in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood because it was one of the few places a starving student could afford to live. I'd walk to Eats 'n' Sweets to fill up on flawless biscuits, and alternately feel self-righteously bohemian and furious that I was poor.

You certainly can't feel very boho in Va-Hi any more, not even on the So-Po side of North Highland. But it's fairly easy to feel poor if you're a visitor to the restaurants there -- well, compared to the $3 breakfast I used to eat. I visited three restaurants on North Highland last week that I hadn't been to in a while. All three have something of value, but only one knocks my socks off.

That would be Dish (870 N. Highland Ave., 404-897-3463). I'm tempted to call this the best restaurant in Virginia-Highland (Horizon would be the close competitor). Located in a refashioned gas station, Dish reminds me a bit of the old Virginia's with its arty boutique ambiance. There is not a drop of Johnson Studio chic here.

I might as well get my one complaint out of the way: Don't make me listen to Neil Young rocking out while I try to eat.

"I hate this music," I said to Wayne.

"Isn't this the stuff people like you listened to in your William and Mary days?" he asked.

"Yeah, I guess," I said. "I only listened when I did drugs."

"Ah," Wayne whispered. "It's making a comeback. Music to get fucked-up by ... with Delilah."

Happily, the music shifted before we actually began eating. The cuisine here is contemporary American and it really is done with great style and service. I loved my "martini" of crawfish tails, sweet corn and shiitake mushrooms with avocado puree. In a less rococo mood, I might prefer Wayne's dish of lightly fried and tender calamari under mixed greens, with a creamy lemon dressing. Zingy, crispy, unctuous -- all on one plate.

For my entree, I chose the menu's most expensive item, a gorgeous "free-form" lasagna with lobster, scallops and shrimp ($22). The dish included just a few lengths of broad pasta to hold together the seafood, which was anointed with a pink lobster sauce. A ribbon of vividly green arugula sauce was painted around the plate's periphery, a riveting contrast to the rich flavors. The quantity of lobster on the plate shocked me, I might add. In fact, I couldn't finish the dish and, remember, I'm a professional eater!

Wayne ordered a pork filet grilled in a wrap of prosciutto, served with fluffy mashed potatoes and a heap of caramelized onions. Indeed, the plate's sauce tasted like a rich onion soup.

It had been even longer since I'd eaten at Harry and Sons (820 N. Highland Ave., 404-873-2009). This restaurant is owned by the same folks who own the wildly popular Surin of Thailand, which has expanded to Buckhead.

As far as I'm concerned, there's only one reason to go here: the sushi bar. Two pieces made with scallop, massago and mayo were good, but I really loved my salmon-skin roll, notably crispy and warm against cool, differently crispy cucumber. A spider roll -- fried softshell crab -- was also state of the art.

There, I'm afraid, happiness ends. The entrees basically replicate Surin's cuisine, which I find simplistic compared even to the cheaper food at Little Bangkok. The menu explains that ka proud lamb is a rack cut into chops. What it doesn't tell you is that you are going to get only three miniscule chops of tough, chewy meat. I suggest the chef go to Nan or Tamarind to see how lamb can be better treated and more generously served.

I disliked the "three-flavor fish" even more. It was a mealy red snapper filet "flavored with Surin's secret three-flavor sauce." I'm guessing the three flavors are sugar, sugar and sugar.

This is a shame. The restaurant itself is convivial and staffed with friendly servers. The bar looks like a great hangout and -- goodbye, Neil Young -- the recorded music the evening of our visit was very cool jazz.

Speaking of convivial, some pleasant changes are occurring at the old Rue de Paris location. The owners have renamed it Muse Art Cafe (640 N. Highland Ave., 404-881-8222) and the once rather chilly interior has been warmed up with some deep reds. The lounge area has been enlarged and fitted with comfy upholstered seating. That, in turn, has made the dining room more bistrolike.

When we walked through the door, I asked the host what kind of changes had been made and she erupted into an explosion of language with a heavy French accent to which I could only respond by smiling and saying, "Cool!" When we got to our table, I asked Wayne what the host had said. "She said it is all wonderful and she hopes we like it."

Beyond the change in decor, I couldn't find anything different. With only a few alterations, the menu looked identical. I later learned that the restaurant had a false start with a chef who has already departed. Thus Muse had not really initiated its new menu when I visited, but it should have debuted by the time you read this. It will be more broadly European with a greatly expanded menu of small plates. Entree prices will drop to the $10 range, with appetizers costing around $5 each.

My favorite dish, the roasted lamb, will remain on the menu. I'm not sure about the chicken in Burgundy that resembles, but lacks, the depth of true coq au vin. You buy this dish, like the duck confit, made with one leg or two. We had a maddening discussion with the waiter about whether it was literally just a leg, which seems ridiculous, or a leg and a thigh. He assured us it was only a leg and then brought a leg and a thigh to the table. "You got lucky," he told Wayne. Whatever. I still have no idea.

Classic French onion soup is decent here. The quirky "French burrito" -- actually crepes filled with ham and a Gruyére sauce spiked with cognac -- is silly but tasty in a juvenile sort of way.

As for the new name, Muse, the restaurant plans to host regular art shows.

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

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