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Eye-opening Iris 

The flower of East Atlanta's secret

I'm contemplating climbing onto the steel-topped bar to break out into a tap routine or swinging from a nubile light fixture when my vehemently waving arms finally capture the bartender's eye. I so startle him out of his drink-dispensing reverie that he freezes and stares blankly at me for a moment, before grinning and asking for my order. I snake my hand through the pulsating masses to grab a martini and a margarita as my friend goes to check on our table. How much longer? 45 minutes? Oh well, no biggie. Cheers!

Such is the scene on weekend nights at Iris in East Atlanta. Remember East Atlanta, the almost 'hood-of-the-moment during Clinton's last days in office when dot-comers had to beat investors off with mouse pads? Well, after several years of fading from esteem, the area finally has the snazzy restaurant it's been waiting for, and we, the converging crowds, get to feel like pioneers all over again.

There's electricity in the air at Iris, that tickly flush everyone senses when a new place hits the elusive mark. You feel it in the space, a former filling station sleekly redone with verve and sex appeal. You feel it in the customers, who strike languid poses at the bar while waiting for their tables, then linger over their meals, reticent to budge. And you certainly feel it in the affordable bistro fare, comforting yet clever and served with panache.

Take the butternut squash soup ($5.50), for example: A server leans over and pours the sultry liquid, glossy with creme fraiche, into a bowl containing a festive dice of squash and toasty pumpkin seeds. Try to resist the urge to tilt your head and have them decant the stuff straight down your gullet. Meaty duck confit ($7.50) gets a nod to its French origins with a small salad of lentil de puy (those tiny green jobbies) and a gentle sweet-n-sour swab of honey-shallot vinaigrette.

Carpaccio of kobe beef, the bovine equivalent of sushi, is silken on the palate ($9.50). How refreshing that the black truffle emulsion on the plate is actually accentuating the flavors of the beef, rather than arm wrestling with it. And I love the crispy oysters strewn over the Caesar salad -- the saline wake-up call is just what this overdone dish needs ($8.50).

Chefs Nicolas Bour and Lein Schoe have an appealing way of cooking meats without a lot of nonsense, and then accompanying them with quirky sides full of personality. Grilled Niman Ranch pork tenderloin (Niman Ranch is to the pig what Rolls-Royce is to the automobile) comes with supple grits and a thick, heady mustard sauce so good that others at the table start dipping their food into it ($16.50). Grilled sirloin steak ($18.50) is paired with lithe tempura green beans (for once, a fun fusion idea I can appreciate) and a sweet potato gratin.

Occasionally, the kitchen indulges in too much late-'90s frippery. That otherwise-lovely pork tenderloin comes with a curly fright wig of fried collard strips that taste like crinkled cellophane. Push them right to the side of the plate. Lamb shank ($16.50) comes adorned with fried sweet potato strips that bring to mind those potato chip derivatives that never made the splash the food corporations hoped they would. The lamb, by the way, is fall-off-the-bone tender but needs more depth to its flavor.

Free form ravioli, the filling of which changes daily, gives the chefs some wiggle room to improvise. On the night I try it, nicely seared skate wing is layered with sheets of pasta and stir-fried vegetables ($19.50). Crisp and squishy and bland and bold all jumble together amiably on the plate. I'd only encourage the kitchen to be even more experimental with this dish.

I'm sure the rapid success of this restaurant has been a tad overwhelming to all concerned, but someone needs to sit down, take a deep breath and give some focused consideration to the dessert offerings. They need help. Dark chocolate torte ($5.50) looks decadently evil, but the chocolate intensity needs to be turned way up. Pistachio creme brûlee is a slight derivation of the same ol' crusty custard ($5.50). Apple pie, with its crisp topping, is the best of the three ($6), but really -- these desserts are flat-out boring. Bring in some un-hackneyed ideas. And no, that tired tiramisu special ($6) does not count.

Despite how mobbed this joint is, the service is spectacular. The wait staff is friendly, present and on their toes. They make astute wine recommendations from the reasonably priced list and even put up with your mildly inebriated friend's corny jokes. When a particularly charming and warm-hearted server named Debra delivers better stemware by which to savor our Cabernet, the guy at the next table leans over and said, "Wow, our server is good, but yours is incredible!"

There's a delicious moment of gloating when you depart from Iris, since inevitably there are folks chomping at the bit for your table and you're floating out sated from a solidly good meal. This neighborhood still has some Danger-Will-Robinson vibes and it's comforting to know the recently hired security guard will watch you walk to the car. But it sure is tempting to flag down that hard-working barkeep and linger in the wonderfully oblivious crowd for just one more drink. In a world full of wearisome conflict and unrest, Iris is currently one of the city's great culinary escapes.

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