"Talk about independence!" one of the two elderly women in the booth next to ours exclaimed. "She got tired of cooking and handed her husband the microwave instruction book."
The other woman gasped. "It's no trouble to fry a pork chop."
I laughed and looked around the dining room at Zaria Café and Bakery (4300 Paces Ferry Road, 770-436-6004, zariacafe.com), a new project of the Atlanta Bread Company in Vinings. I felt like I'd returned to childhood. I grew up in Sandy Springs, and the people sitting around me -- polite, obviously prosperous and deeply Southern -- made me feel nostalgic.
I wondered, though. Did they realize they were sitting in a restaurant, first of many planned, that is named after a pagan deity who was about to transform their lives? I quote Zaria's website:
"Zaria has its roots in old European culture. In fact, the Slavic goddess of beauty was named Zaria, while in Russian, the word 'Zaria' is synonymous with sunrise, a new day and a new beginning.
"Calling upon these classic but eclectic roots, Zaria offers a diverse menu tastefully blending world cuisine, organic ingredients and superior quality with bold, fresh, indulgent flavors in a manner which leaves you satisfied, relaxed and thoroughly refreshed."
Oy. I guess you can call a steak sandwich "world cuisine" since it's made with a French baguette. And, yeah, beef satay is Thai. And the pasta dishes are made with, um, pasta. That's Italian. In short, most of what the restaurant is calling "world cuisine" long ago passed into the American culinary repertoire.
As for beauty, the goddess Zaria likes the centerpiece of her temple to be a huge, towering copper heater with gas logs. The copper color is echoed in some walls and trimwork. Booths are upholstered in muted but colorful fabric, and the floor is the color of green tapenade. Zaria likes her temple to smell like garlic -- an odor that knocked us in the face when we walked into the restaurant, which is fronted by a small bakery counter.
The new café is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I have only visited for the latter. As an example of the oddity of its pretensions, I asked the server what was on the "artisan cheese" plate. He disappeared for nearly 10 minutes and finally returned to say, apologetically, "It's not that interesting. It's gouda, brie and gorgonzola."
I passed and ordered a starter of braised lamb ribs glazed in a honey-ginger sauce, and Wayne selected a lump crab cake with wasabi aioli and mint oil. Both starters were decent. The ribs were a huge portion and, while the sauce was too sweet and commercial tasting, the meat was savory and tender. Wayne's crab cake tasted like a zillion inoffensive others.
Entrees are straight off the list of tried-and-true favorites in middle America. I passed on the pecan-crusted chicken, the lamb chops, the rosemary chicken and the grilled salmon. I ordered the flat-iron steak. It was flavored with harissa, a Tunisian red-chile sauce, and "Spanish spices," then drenched in a sherry reduction with roasted shallots and mushrooms.
Considering the somewhat complicated flavors and sauce, you can imagine my shock when the server put two bottles of commercial steak sauce on the table.
"You don't really expect me to use that, do you?" I asked.
"No sir, of course not," he said, whisking the stuff away.
The steak, though tender and cooked to order, was way overseasoned for my taste. But I do prefer steaks cooked without fuss. Sides of browned potatoes and green beans -- huge portions that overwhelmed the 9-ounce steak -- tasted fine.
Wayne ordered the better dish -- mahi mahi with Mediterranean accents, including couscous with basil pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and shaved fennel. The fish, served with steamed asparagus and lime butter, was well cooked, just like the steak. I found the couscous grim, but Wayne gobbled it up.
We also ordered a side of lemon-asparagus risotto. Avoid it unless you like something that would more properly be called "risotto au gratin." Too thick and covered with too much cheese, the dish was unredeemed even by the fresh asparagus.
For dessert we split a very strange version of bread pudding that included white chocolate and rum-soaked golden raisins with strawberries. It was almost like panna cotta over barely chewy bread. Again, it wasn't really bad or great. It was, like, so existential: It was what it was.
Three servers appeared at our table throughout the meal, and two of them were new hires. The one in charge was a recent hire, who apologized throughout our meal for this and that. In fact, he unnecessarily comped our dessert as an apology for the bizarre cheese plate we didn't even order. The entire staff was similarly solicitous. I suspect that if your mate refuses to fry you a pork chop, a place like Zaria will do fine. But I'm not believing the goddess of beauty dines here.
Here and there
Speaking of things Southern and nostalgic, Sundown Café's David Waller recently offered a special of quesadillas stuffed with jalapeno-spiked pimento cheese. They were served with chunks of watermelon, some pickled okra, some cole slaw and a hollowed-out tomato filled with corn relish. It was impossible to order them without riffing about your mama's pimento cheese and her favorite additions. I felt, too, as if I were at a summertime church homecoming in a small town...
Drew Van Leuvan, the hot talent who made Toast such a surprise hit and then left to head the kitchen at Spice, has now landed at Woodfire Grill, thus far working as pastry chef.
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