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From fried chicken to young love

Restaurants get better. Restaurants get worse. This week, I've got some updates.

When the Food Network asked to interview me about Gladys Knight and Ron Winan's Chicken and Waffles, I thought I better pay a return visit. I had not eaten in the restaurant since it left its Ponce de Leon location and moved downtown to 529 Peachtree St. about a year ago.

The downtown location is fancier than the original. Nearly every inch of the place is covered in cherry-stained wood, giving it a clubby, almost gloomy ambiance. Unfortunately, it's a bit shabby around the edges. Here and there, tables are mysteriously missing from booths and an untidy service area is set up between the front and rear dining room. But the food and friendly service compensate well.

The peculiar specialty here - fried chicken served with waffles - is still the main reason to go. The dish originated in Harlem but is best known to me from visits to Roscoe's in Los Angeles, a landmark in the African-American community there.

The fried chicken is good. Though not pan-fried, it's still flavorful, thanks in part to a long session of marinating in a concoction apparently more secret than the Colonel's. I'm unable to detect if buttermilk is actually part of the chicken's bath, but it does have a slight sourness that is a nice counterpoint to the maple syrup you pour over the waffle on the side. The contrast is what makes the dish so appealing. The crunchy batter of the chicken is nice against the waffle, which turns custardy under the syrup.

Wayne and I also sampled good collard greens and macaroni and cheese. I'm not a fan of the latter in any version, but it was good enough. The next day, when I went for filming, I was presented two dishes that disturbed me - a vegetable sauté over oily rice and a sweet potato cheesecake. Both were unpleasant. I made the point, and I'll repeat it here since I doubt it will make it on the air, that when soul food gets too far from its roots, it loses authenticity and appeal. If you just have to play with recipes, I'd much rather eat hoppin' john and sweet potato pie that have been tweaked slightly with interesting garnishes than the dishes I was presented.

Still, the chicken and waffles remain delicious.

My friend Tom and I lunched recently at Violette (2948 Clairmont Road) to celebrate his new home purchase. Violette has a long and quirky history in our city. It used to be located in a former bank and was famous for its special meals served by a singing waitress. The chef/owner served Atlanta some of its first French bistro food and was unique for a few Alsatian dishes.

Then, a few years ago, the restaurant moved to its present and much prettier location. Lunch is dirt-cheap and quick, obviously catering to folks (like Tom) from nearby office buildings. I grazed on some perfectly fried potatoes with a heavy, herbed dip I confess I didn't like much, plus an order of delicious pâté. Tom, who eats at Violette weekly, had a chicken and spinach crepe with a mushroom sauce. It was good but the sauce was a mite heavy-handed.

I'm sorry to report, too, that service was harried and forgetful. We were seated at a tiny table and when the server couldn't fit the pâté's pointlessly enormous plate on the table, he just stood there helplessly until I slid the stuff onto a butter plate. Another server forgot our coffee and had to be begged for bread.

I suggest, unless you are in the area during the day, that you plan any special trip for dinner instead of lunch and always aim for the Alsatian dishes, if they're available.

On a recent gorgeous Saturday, I visited my friend Chris in Midtown and we walked to Nickiemoto's on 10th Street at Piedmont. This restaurant - sister to one in Buckhead - transformed this corner into a bustling commercial area that soon will be home to a huge condo development as well as the boutiques thriving there.

I was long a fan of the Buckhead Nickiemoto's, especially when Alena Pyles was chef there and produced some of our city's first and most interesting (Japanese-Southwestern) fusion cuisine. But my visits to the 10th Street location have not been good. Because of indifferent service, horrendously loud dance music and often unpleasant sushi, I imagined the place as something like a noodle bar inside Backstreet.

But on a beautiful day, sitting on the patio, listening to Chris go on about Lacan, I had a different experience. I lunched exclusively on sushi maki rolls and found most of them delicious - especially the salmon skin roll, which was a disaster in the past. True, a few of the rolls are totally bland and nothing comes close to the artistry of Soto. (One roll's pieces were annoyingly shaped to resemble a starburst.) But generally, I note a significant improvement. A server said a new sushi chef was at work there.

Rose D'Agostino and I lunched recently at Kim Vidal's Carroll Street Bakery on the main drag through Cabbagetown, in the late photographer Panama Ray's old studio. This is one of the quirkiest, most appealing spots in our city, serving absolutely killer sandwiches and baked goods. Erin, a new employee with low-country culinary roots, tried several recipes on us, including a fabulous cornbread stuffed with vegetables and good soup.

Sotto Sotto on North Highland, our favorite Italian restaurant, has added some new dishes to its spring menu and diners should try them pronto. My favorite is orecchiette, a handmade pasta with the chewy texture of gnocchi, cooked with rapini, garlic, anchovies, hot peppers and olive oil ($13). There's also incredibly rich tortelloni filled with mascarpone and artichokes in a butter and cream sauce ($13). A salad of asparagus, arugula, hazelnuts and parmigiano reggiano, in balsamic vinaigrette, has been added too ($6).

We were happy to spend some time with owner/chef Ricardo's new (beautiful) wife Madora at the restaurant last week. Madora is an artist with plans to study in Florence, Italy, leaving Ricardo behind to slave over the stove. "How do you feel about that, Ricardo?" I asked. He gestured at the air with his hands, silent a moment before exploding: "What? What am I going to do? Why does everyone ask me that? I think it's great she's going to study art in Italy." Amore! Modern marriage! Bella, already!

Contact Cliff Bostock at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or at grazer@mindspring.com.



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