Utopia: Back to the future 

High design with martinis and tapas

Our server, Luzelana, put a hand on her hip and looked around the room. "Hmmmm," she said. "I think I would call it retro. No, I'd call it retro-futuristic."

Perfect. She was describing Utopia (840 Marietta St., 404-898-8788), a month-old "martini and tapas lounge" in rapidly redeveloping west Atlanta. We visited last Monday night and were the only customers in the large, picturesque space.

I'd asked Luzelana for a description because the dining room does defy characterization. It reminds me somewhat of the handwrought beauty of the original Virginia's. There is dynamic use of vivid colors, including plasma screens that feature psychedelic images. (Picture a two-dimensional lava lamp.) There is a mosaic wall shimmering with water. There are big, circular booths swagged by sheer fabric. There is a wall of curlicue metal. There is great art.

And there are jewel-colored martinis with names such as Blue Crush, Pink Diamond and Black Orchid. You can order a flight of three samples, as Wayne did. I'm sure the colors that attract you speak as loudly and clearly as a mood ring.

The menu of tapas is cross-cultural, featuring everything from sushi to Mexican-inspired dishes. As is true at most tapas restaurants, you'll spend a lot of money to get full, but maybe you'll just want to sit at the bar like a black-clad George Jetson and swill Pink Diamonds while nibbling a single chili relleno filled with diced chicken, pepper jack cheese, squash and zucchini.

The chili, an oversized poblano, was my favorite dish. We also liked the fried shrimp coated in pistachios and served with a salad of cucumber and sweet peppers. An empanada made with chorizo and potatoes beat a crawfish quesadilla by a mile. In fact, don't order the quesadilla. Mussels and clams, steamed just right, were submerged in a tomatoey, tasty broth with enough garlic to repel a vampire. Sauteed cilantro pork with green onions and tomatoes, served over sticky rice, was a bit too Chinese-American.

For dessert, I ordered four fried banana slices radiating from a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Definitely order it instead of the chocolate mousse cake, a grim concoction even with a scoop of ice cream.

There are a few oddities that need correction. Chipotle mayo, for example, was drizzled on no fewer than three of our choices. That's overkill. As is true at most tapas venues, portions were inconsistent even though prices varied to account for ingredients.

Don't let my few complaints discourage you from visiting Utopia. The decor and the rococo martinis alone are reason enough to go, but most of the tapas are worth a try.

Lunch down the street

God, I love Star Provisions (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-365-0410). The market and lunch spot adjacent to Bacchanalia really has no equal in the city. I've lunched there a few times in the last week and had to resist emptying the bakery case both times.

How good is Star Provisions? It's so good that my curmudgeonly friend Gregg eats there regularly without complaint. His favorite is the shrimp po'boy. I like the grilled lamb with tomato confit and aioli on olive bread. There's also a killer muffuletta and an amazing falafel with pickled eggplant, tahini and mint-garlic yogurt.

The cafe also prepares a daily entree special. Last week, I had two fat meatballs in a San Marzano tomato sauce, with some white beans and spinach. Taste was great but, honestly, I'd balk at paying the $12.95 price again. I needed four ginger cookies afterward, just to feel like I wasn't going to starve.

Gregg and I concluded lunch with desserts of a cupcake that tasted like strawberry shortcake for him and a creamy lemon tart for me. I've also feasted on coconut macaroons and shortbread cookies iced to look like cartoonish camels, hippos and butterflies. A lavender-flavored pound cake has also been irresistible.

I imagine the shop will be working the Easter theme to glorious excess. If it doesn't actually sell Easter baskets, you could certainly assemble one here to please any foodie.

Here and there

I lunched with my friend Rose D'Agostino at Com, the Vietnamese grill on Buford Highway, for the first time in a couple of months last week. The restaurant has added some new menu items, including what I'd call "Vietnamese fajitas."

You get grilled steak (or lamb if available) served with red and green bell peppers on a hot, sizzling plate. Instead of folding the meat and peppers into tortillas, you heap them on French bread. Don't even try to do this with chopsticks. ...

Last week, I mentioned the new Saigon Basil on Piedmont Avenue. I like the Vietnamese vermicelli dish (No. 9) but some minimal exploration of the Thai side of the menu has been much less satisfying. ...

Zocalo Taqueria on Boulevard in Grant Park is still serving wonderful "al pastor" – pork marinated in spices and cooked on a rotisserie topped with fresh pineapple. I love the "gringa" quesadilla, which features the meat with thick slices of pineapple and melted cheese. Order the frijoles charros on the side. ...

Cheese of the Week: I've lately been addicted to drunken goat cheese from the Murcia region of Spain. I've bought it at Alon's and Whole Foods. The cheese is briefly aged, then submerged in doble pasta wine for 72 hours, then aged for about 75 days. It has a purple rind and a creamy texture. The wine faintly intermingles with the taste of the cheese. I like to eat it with an organic Fuji apple. ...

Kevin Rathbun is opening a steakhouse a block north of the very successful Rathbun's on Krog Street. It will also be eponymous: Kevin Rathbun Steak. Designed by the Johnson Studio, the restaurant will seat about 140 meat-eaters.

While digging in the new site, workers unearthed a 100-year-old steak-sauce bottle, which the restaurant is regarding as a sign of good fortune. Whether prospective diners agree that bottled steak sauce bodes well, I don't know.


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