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Two's company 

Atkins Park and Teaspace start the year off right

I hope this is a sign of things to come this year. I had two great meals last week. Both featured new menus and straightforward cooking served in congenial surroundings. And neither cost a lot -- even for a critic who feels like he has to engorge himself.

The two restaurants are Teaspace (1133-B Euclid Ave., 404-577-9793) and -- shockingly -- Atkins Park (794 N. Highland Ave., 404-876-7249). I decided to check out the latter, which has always bored me, when a friend mentioned that he had sampled a good gumbo there recently. Atkins Park, which opened in 1922, is the city's oldest continuously licensed tavern. Its adjoining restaurant's quality has been up and down for as long as I can remember.

I've never much cared for the ambiance here. It's traditional pub decor with lots of heavy dark wood. But during my visit, the restaurant was still decorated with Christmas garland and twinkle lights, making it a bit cozier. I don't advocate that the restaurant keep Xmas there year-round, but it really does need to find a way to lighten things up.

The change in the food my friend reported is real. The restaurant recently hired Andrew Smith as chef. He worked five years in various positions for Scott Peacock of Horseradish Grill and Watershed. Then he became sous chef at Sala and, most recently, worked for Shaun Doty at MidCity Cuisine.

The menu, which had already been greatly improved by the last chef, has mainly been tweaked here and there, with a few additions like the seafood stew I ordered as my entree. It included lots of shrimp, mussels and chunks of fish -- I'm guessing grouper -- in a thick tomato sauce served over white rice. The sauce would please me more with some Creole seasonings, but I'm not complaining. The seafood was cooked just right.

My favorite dish was my starter -- two deep-fried lump crab cakes with a sauce of whole-grain mustard, white wine and cream, garnished with fried leeks. Don't imagine the frying turns them into fritters. They were just slightly crunchy and full of sweet crabmeat. I noticed no fillers.

Wayne ordered a bracing turkey-vegetable soup for a starter and we shared a basket of Yukon Gold potato chips -- 10 times tastier and less greasy than the Buckhead Diner's and served with a more interesting sour cream dip filled with caramelized onions. Because the onions are in relatively large rings, the dip needs to be served in a larger bowl. Or the onions need to be chopped up a bit. As it was, we had to use our knives to spread the stuff.

Wayne's entree, linguine with jumbo shrimp sauteed in Madeira and roasted broccoli, was a special. The smoky broccoli, seasoned with sesame oil, would make me happy as a regular side dish.

Desserts were less impressive. The chocolate cake with whipped cream, inspired by Peacock's famous version, featured icing that wanted to turn into concrete. Better was Wayne's waffle topped with ice cream and sauteed apple slices.

I hope that Atkins Park gives Smith freedom to experiment fully with its menu. Considering his background -- Southern, Mexican and New American -- he might produce some very innovative dishes.Textural challenges

We actually set out to dine at Mangrove, which replaced Bridgetown Grill in Little Five Points, last week. What a surreal spot. The front of the restaurant was completely empty and we found our way to the back -- the former patio now enclosed with walls painted a hideous blue never seen in nature. Three televisions were blaring above a bar and a few kids with silver piercings and starkly contrasting dyed black hair -- what's that all about? -- sat around balefully eating Jamaican patties.

I ordered something and the waitress told me, "We don't have that. In fact, we'll never have that. In fact, we're closing at the end of the week."

So, wanting to review something, we crossed the street to Teaspace, which I hadn't visited in a long time. If you haven't, either, get yourself there soon. One of the chefs, Joel Cammett, formerly pastry chef at Commune and also now a partner in the restaurant, has developed a new menu of what co-owner Landon Brown describes as "source-conscious international cuisine." Yeah, baby.

That means the menu is no longer predominantly Japanese, although the innumerable teas -- including the formerly trendy bubble teas -- are still available. Bubble tea, in case you don't know, is flavored tea mixed with milk and full of tapioca pearls. I like the stuff -- especially the ginger flavor -- but a girl sitting beside me shifted uneasily as I drank mine. "Ew ... it's like eating baby eyeballs," she said. "I have textural issues."

I did five minutes of free therapy with her and she is OK with having textural issues now. The food is a fabulous bargain. A mushroom tart, just barely redolent of truffle oil, included three wild mushrooms in a pastry shell made by Cammett. A salad special -- baby arugula with pecans in an authentic vinaigrette and an aged cheese -- is a lesson in the beauty of organic ingredients. Even the texturally challenged will be amazed at the intensity of flavors.

My entree of seared trout from Skeenah Valley was served over mixed braised greens and a sweet potato gratin (mercifully free of sugar). No kidding, it's one of the best dishes for the money ($16) I've eaten in memory. Wayne ordered the silly-named "tofu treasure balls," which have been on the menu quite a while. You won't find a better treatment of every vegan's fave meat substitute than this dish, actually fritters of tofu combined with vegetables served with a sweet sauce and a (better) chili sauce. Order them with the black rice. We're talking a bland substance elevated to textural perfection.

Cammett's desert of an organic Fuji apple dumpling, served with homemade Thai tea ice cream, is a gorgeous marvel. An icebox Kaffir lime pie with a sauce made of rooibus tea with slivered strawberries kicks ass, too.

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

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