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The hip and the hospitable 

Lunch at Commune, Dinner at Wisteria

My friend Ken does the visual merchandising for one of those stores that caters to young women with a bit of a wild side. You know: spangled, semi-transparent panties and thongs that look like they are made out of spaghetti noodles.

On his day off recently, we went in search of lunch, literally visiting three closed restaurants before we landed at Commune (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-609-5000). This is one of those restaurants that looks far better at night than during the day but tends in any case to prompt an avalanche of adjectives to suggest super-trendiness. I was glad to be lunching with a man who throws panties around a store and has an obsession with Scarlett O'Hara.

"It looks Asian," Ken muttered as we slid into a booth in the sparsely patronized restaurant. I assume 40 days and nights of rain had diminished business but our server explained Commune draws a later lunch crowd. Well, we were there quite a while and the ark never filled.

"You think it's Asian-looking because of the black and red lacquer and lights?" I asked Ken.

"Yeah."

"But those red crosses in the ceiling remind me of Switzerland. I feel like I'm eating inside a Swatch here," I said.

Executive Chef Thomas Ricci has designed a lunch menu of New American cuisine that is a bit earthier and, I have to say, significantly less complex than the lunch cuisine at Bacchanalia, which is in the same complex. A starter of finely blended gazpacho ($4) would have been very refreshing had the salt been reduced by half. The effect is like sucking up a Bloody Mary poured over a cow's salt lick. I have to admit it grew on me, but the word "arteriosclerosis" kept floating on the surface of the soup.

"You know," I told the waiter, "I enjoyed the gazpacho but you might want to tell the chef that it's extremely salty."

"I know," he snapped. "He likes it that way. That's the way it has always been and that's the way it's staying."

Ken's soup, chicken-vegetable with barley ($5), was the better choice. I was happy not to feel I needed to comment to our server.

The menu is divided into salads, flatbreads, sandwiches and "mains." I chose the ahi tuna tartare which bore the menu's highest price of $11. It came to the table arranged like a layered tart which the waiter offered to mix for me. It's a very nice dish. Chopped tuna and avocado are played against a touch of Scotch bonnet peppers, some mint and a bit of chili oil. It's garnished with some pine nuts and served with little toast points. Tasty as it was, the portion wasn't large enough to fill Karen Carpenter's hollow tooth. I had to filch half of Ken's french fries and order dessert.

Ken, who should have more adventurous taste, considering the panties he displays, skipped the more interesting offerings to go for the familiar: a Philly cheese-steak sandwich ($8). Good bread was glazed with cheddar and filled with steak, onions and peppers. Portion-wise, it was the better choice. Taste-wise, it wasn't very interesting.

On the server's insistence, we ordered a dessert of macerated strawberries and a "disc" of mascarpone (with an oddly light flavor) and a dribble of basil oil on the plate ($6). You order it, but I'm sticking with the other dessert we sampled: warm chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream ($5).

Back to Wisteria

After last week's exploration of Southern steam table food, I felt I deserved some real cooking and Wayne and I headed to Wisteria (471 N. Highland Ave., 404-525-3363), which I had not visited in over a year. This restaurant's menu of new American cooking has some strong Southern notes.

And so does its hospitality. The dining room itself is welcoming. The brick-walled, wood-floored room is hung with sensual landscape pastels by Katie Moriarty. The restaurant, which weirdly opened two years ago on Sept. 11, has retained most of its staff and it shows. Our server Vanessa, Waitron of the Week, was the best server I've encountered in months. Alas, she's leaving the restaurant to go to medical school. If her bedside manner is as good as her tableside one, she's going to do very well.

I started with a luscious yellow-tomato soup in which floated big dollops of goat cheese and green-olive tapenade ($4.95). I can't help it, but it reminded me of my favorite sandwich as a kid: olives and cream cheese with fresh tomatoes.

Wayne started with the more exotic wild boar and cranberry sausage, which I heartily recommend. The grilled sausage was served with a peach chow chow spiked with bourbon and garnished with fried sage leaves. A bit of basil oil was on the plate too. ($6.95). I expected the chow chow to be too sweet and I was happily wrong.

However, I did find his entree, molasses-rubbed pork tenderloin ($20.95) sweet to my taste, especially with its big mound of sweet-potato souffle and relish of walnuts, apples and -- thank you, Jesus, for the contrast -- some Vidalia onions.

I ordered the iron-skillet chicken ($14.95), which I love. It's half a boned chicken, moist inside and crunchy outside, and served over collards braised with bacon. There was a sweet-corn pudding and a mushroom-herb broth in the bottom of the plate.

For dessert, we shared peach cobbler topped with ice cream and a huge blackberry pierced by mint leaves. It looked like a cartoon palm tree. The fruit was fresh, the crust delicious, but the small round container made efficient eating nearly impossible. We managed.

Reader recommendations

I have received numerous compliments about The Chicken House (2999 Main St., East Point, 404-768-2511). I've been unable to get there because nobody was ever able to provide an address but owner Ramon Restori sent me his menu last week. I am there! It's the only menu I've seen in town that features chicharrones, here made in gorditas and quesadillas. My longtime complaint is that while you can buy chicharrones -- fried or soft pork fat -- in Mexican markets, you can't find anyone actually serving them. The Chicken House offers many other authentic dishes. ...

It looks as though Dahlonega, long a culinary torture chamber, may have a good contemporary restaurant at last. Cibo (272 N. Grove Road, Dahlonega, 706-867-9881, cibodining.com) has been opened by David Meyer who earlier worked at Ciboulette, Carbo's Cafe and Bistango. The menu is American favorites. The site is a cottage off the square in Dahlonega. ...

This is from reader Julie Booth who wrote to recommend The Bulloch House after reading my review of The Blue Willow last week: "No, it's not in or near Atlanta. It's in Warm Springs but the drive is worth it. I'm sure a food critic would find some inconsistencies and problems with some of the items just as the ones at Blue Willow, but they have fried chicken, fresh fried green tomatoes, butter beans, fried ham and green beans to die for. Their biscuits are delicious too. I don't think their buffet is as big as the Blue Willow's. I've never tried Blue Willow Inn in part because any time I'm going to drive for genuine home cooking, it's either going to be to my mother's in Zebulon or over to Warm Springs." ...

Randal Quinn wrote to give a thumb's up to a place that has aroused my curiosity for a long time: "There's a place on Buford Highway called Costa Mariscos. It's slightly north of Asia Square on the diagonal, a kiosk in the middle of the parking lot. It's not a good choice for a tornado shelter but it offers simple but tasty fare, like fresh shrimp ceviche and tasty tacos."

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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