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The bland plays on 

Beaufain's needs a lesson in piquancy

Oakhurst, that funky district west of Decatur, has become a small but happening enclave of restaurants and bars. Margie's Pantry, with its inexpensive menu of comfort food and baked goods, is certainly the most popular destination there.

Last year, the Heaping Bowl and Brew folks opened a restaurant in Oakhurst but promptly bailed (as they did from Cabbage-town, where they operated Eureka). The space has recently been taken over by Beaufain's (350 Mead Road, 404-373-3757). The interior, originally featuring a kind of homespun "Jetsons" decor, feels a bit toned down and warmer than before. There's a very friendly staff, a bar worth roosting at and food that is vaguely improved over the earlier tenant's, if still needing some work.

The theme here is South Carolina Lowcountry cuisine. The young chef/co-owner worked in Charleston restaurants and is a graduate of Johnson and Wales culinary school there. In Atlanta, he operated a small restaurant, Courtside, in a northside tennis club for a while.

I'm a bit mystified by what seems to be an evolving trend here. Another restaurant, Twang, has opened in East Atlanta, also serving South Carolina cooking. Wayne and I find this fascinating. He grew up in Columbia and my own mother is from the metropolis of Silver, not far from Charleston. So we go to these restaurants and keep looking over our shoulders for our mamas. "I hope nobody's going to try to make me eat liver," Wayne said.

Beaufain's is, if anything, less "twangy" than Twang, thought it's cuisine is certainly cleaner. It's an odd thing. The food aims at piquancy but is almost universally bland. An appetizer of crab cakes ($7.25) is supposedly spiked with jalapeños and served with a "spicy" remoulade, but I never encountered any heat at all. The crab cakes generally are a bit custardy for my taste. A heap of "sweet potato hair" -- fried potato shavings -- is tasteless flotsam.

Better by far was Wayne's grilled shrimp with strips of tomato ($6.50). The shrimp were deliciously smoky and the tomatoes, though pink, added a nice acid touch. I also sampled the "ham hocked okra stew" ($3). It would be tasty with about four times the quantity of ham hock. Neither the flavor of the meat nor the meat itself was evident except in a few annoying slivers.

Entrees were better but still suffered from the curse of blandness. Wayne's blackened tilapia ($13.25) was oily but tasty enough, though I'd be happy never to eat another piece of blackened flesh. It was served over completely tasteless cheddar cheese grits. My whiskey-marinated boneless pork chop ($12.75) was served with -- yes -- an inexplicably bland "pepper gravy." And my mashed sweet potatoes, an attempt at a departure from the usual sweet version, were whipped with completely flavorless jalapeño bits. Spinach, also on the side, was tender and flavorful.

The only item offered for dessert was bread pudding -- in need of several more shots of booze and a bit of caramel glaze here and there. Cut loose, folks. This isn't Greenville.

The un-bland
Almost ying to Beaufain's bland yang is Tierra, our favorite Pan American cafe on Piedmont. Wayne, Rose D'Agostino and I paid a visit to try the winter menu recently. Ticha and Dan Krinsky, the married chefs/owners, continue to produce some of the most interesting cuisine in town and it's better than ever.

The black bean soup with apple-cured bacon and creme fraiche, remains one of the best versions in the city ($4.50). Rose, nursing a cold, ordered the day's soup, an excellent chicken soup ($4.50), but I think I fared best with an amazing piono, platanos stuffed with picadillo ($7.25), served with a mayo spiked with a Thai chili sauce. Order it!

My entree was a generous portion of lamb stewed with potatoes and yucca, served with canary beans and rice ($19.50). Imagine a French navarin turned exotic by Peruvian spices. The restaurant was among the first in the city to begin offering flawless Argentine beef. Currently the couple is offering a tenderloin served over Mayan green sauce and a cheese gordita, a thick pan-fried tortilla ($19.50). "Exquisite," Rose declared.

Wayne's dish, though competent, was my least favorite: grilled pork medallions with warm fruit compote and chipotle mashed potatoes ($15.95). Other interesting entrees here include grilled grouper with a Brazilian peanut sauce, herb linguini with chicken chorizo in caper-tomato sauce with grated manchego and sauteed shrimp baked in Brazilian cheese.

The Krinksys are heading to Peru for a week or so of nonstop dining. It will be interesting to see how their menu changes next. If you have not tried this restaurant, do it soon.

I was very nervous when Les Carloss told me recently that he'd sold Creole Cafe on Piedmont. Carloss has given our city its best New Orleans restaurants for years. The cafe, open only for lunch, has been secondary to his catering business for a few years, so I wasn't surprised by his decision to sell.

I'm happy to report that the new owner, Karen Hudson, a born-and-bred New Orleans girl, is cooking Carloss' recipes, tweaking them and doing a killer job. I'd have to say that the seafood gumbo is the best in the city right now. It has the proper consistency, is made with a good roux, has the right amount of heat, is full of chicken, sausage, okra, shrimp and crawfish and has a perfect gumbo-rice ratio. I could eat the stuff every day.

Contact Cliff Bostock at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.

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