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Wine and dine 

Eating at the watering hole: The Grape and the Standard

I don't drink alcohol. Overindulgence in my 20s -- terminating with two apocalyptic scenes in which I tried to punch out some cops -- convinced me that I'd live longer if I switched to drinking antifreeze. So I haven't drunk alcohol in a very long time.

I tell you this by way of admitting my disadvantage when I dine in restaurants where the accent is on getting plastered or genteelly sipping wine. I went to two such places last week, The Grape at Inman Park (300 N. Highland Ave., 404-577-4662) and The Standard (327 Memorial Drive, 404-681-3344).

The Grape is part of a franchise chain that began in Vinings and has mushroomed into a couple dozen locations throughout the South. There are, at last count, seven of them in Atlanta and the Inman Park location is the latest.

I don't usually go to franchise spots, particularly when, as I wrote last week, their intrusion on the landscape is so disconcerting. Grape's new location, owned by R&B singer Usher, sits catty-corner to inconspicuous Fritti and Sotto Sotto. It is aglow with purple neon. One peers through the big picture windows expecting to see, I don't know, a woman dancing naked with a boa constrictor.

In reality, the new restaurant, like most of its sister locations, is at once sleek and cozy inside. The building includes a retail operation that is almost space-age-looking, with bottles on display in colorfully lit niches. It looks like Scotty just beamed them up from their countries of origin.

The restaurant was mainly empty on a Sunday night. Part of the problem was that a gas line had erupted across the street, causing a traffic snarl. Fritti and Sotto Sotto had to close but the all-electric Grape was open.

The basic concept here is that of an enoteca, a Roman-style wine bar serving mainly small plates. Wayne declared the concept genius in its adaptation to American tastes. I guess. Obviously, with so many franchises seemingly profiting, he may be right.

I have a simpler explanation: The food is good, surprisingly good. The spiral-bound menu includes spreads such as tapenade, "pizzas" made of pita bread, "Mediterranean quesadillas," entree salads and sandwiches, sundry gourmet treats, cheeses and sweets.

One thing they don't have is any soda. I couldn't get tonic water or even a Coke. Our server Tobias said he receives continual complaints about this but that there won't be any change. I was glad I don't drink alcohol because I couldn't follow Tobias' complicated explanation of the way wines are classified and priced here. In any case, Wayne got a flight of three chardonnays, one of which tasted, as advertised, like popcorn.

Our first dish was one of the pita pizzas, a "pisa," topped with Cambozola, prosciutto and a fig spread. I loved this -- crunchy and creamy textures with pungent bleu cheese, slightly salty proscuitto and sweet figs. Although the menu claims these "pisas" are "Grape originals," we've actually eaten similar concoctions at Lawrence's on Buford Highway.

We also ordered a fat quesadilla loaded with medium-rare beef tenderloin, cheddar cheese and caramelized onions, served with a creamy horseradish sauce. This could easily serve as a meal for the average Prada-clad tippler.

But we, being professionals, pushed on. Wayne ordered a muffaletta -- a gigantic version made with ciabatta stuffed with Italian meats, cheeses and olive salad. It is plenty for two and will make you nostalgic for New Orleans.

I ordered a plate of three lamb chops meant to be eaten lollipop-style. They were seasoned discreetly but served with my only complaint of the evening -- a really indiscreet "mint, black cherry and port reduction." Thank God the stuff was on the side and could be ignored after the first taste. If you like glutinous cough syrup, you will love it.

Desserts stress chocolate and we ordered one that featured layers of chocolate mousse and flourless chocolate cake enclosed in a hard shell of dark chocolate. It sat atop caramel and butter-toffee sauce. Normally, it also features a strawberry sauce but I asked that it be brought on the side for Wayne. As I've written a thousand times, I can't abide chocolate spoiled by sauces that typically taste like preserved berries. I liked the dessert very much. Wayne was annoyed that it wasn't heated and served with ice cream. He can get the warmed chocolate brownie next time.

Service at the restaurant was good all around.

In the hood

The Standard, located in a former gas station near Oakland Cemetery, seems to be a huge hit. It was humming on a Monday night and we couldn't even get a table when we tried to return on Wednesday. A sign out front says "Free Beer Tomorrow." We wondered if tomorrow had finally arrived.

The place is easy on the eyes. The owners have done a great job creating a "Cheers"-worthy bar where you can snack and get plastered or watch the inevitable plasma TVs. Service is casual and smart -- like the crowd, mainly younger people from Grant Park and Cabbagetown.

Slap me for bad timing. We dined at the Standard a day before a new menu with more options was debuting. Those include more substantial entrees such as pasta and a daily special. But the rest of the menu remains intact.

We started with a quartet of sliders -- little cheeseburgers you can almost swallow whole -- and an arugula salad. The latter, full of mandarin oranges, goat cheese, toasted pecans and cranberries, was tossed with a refreshing lemon-zest dressing. Both appetizers are meant for sharing.

Sandwiches weren't quite as impressive. Wayne chose a gigantic pimento-cheese sandwich on toasted multigrain bread and I ordered grilled chicken in a spicy peri-peri sauce on focaccia. My sandwich would have been much better without its excess of what tasted like aioli. It completely overwhelmed the peri-peri sauce. I preferred the pimento cheese. But I certainly plan to go back. I love the ambiance, the staff and the dirt-cheap prices.

There's a killer beer selection here, too.

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