Grazing: Something fishy

Angling for prime sushi, anchovies and Thai

When Tom Catherall goes to that great kitchen in the sky, he will certainly be remembered as the man who brought decent dining to Atlanta's malls. Where once there was only junk food, now there is cuisine. After heading the kitchen at the long-defunct Azalea and making his mark as the city's master of fusion cuisine, Catherall surprised everyone a few years ago by opening Tom Tom at Lenox Square. Later he opened Prime there, too, and has now opened Goldfish at Perimeter Mall. (He also opened Noche in Virginia-Highland within the last year.)

We'll be reporting on Goldfish, a seafood restaurant, in a few weeks. Recently, though, I revisited Prime with Wayne and Rose D'Agostino. In all honesty, it was our second choice. We'd been to Soto, craving sushi, and found that restaurant packed, with nearly every table bereft of so much as a single piece of Chef Soto's flawless work. We knew it would be a torturous wait for a table and then to get fed, so we sped to Prime.

To our surprise, Prime was packed, with a 20-minute wait, too. This restaurant has long featured one of my favorite interiors. It is completely free of the hideous ostentation that has turned so many restaurants into monuments to the nouveau riche — and that's no mean feat at Lenox Square. The restaurant décor and menu is a Japanese-American fusion for those who love steaks, seafood and sushi.

As I have often written here, Soto has spoiled my taste for the average sushi served around town, so I was disinclined to dine exclusively on sushi at Prime. I ordered only a salmon-skin hand roll as a starter. Rose and Wayne decided to make a meal of it, though, ordering a gigantic platter of the stuff, with sashimi and several extras. I thought they should sample some before ordering so much.

"I certainly hope the sushi is good," I said to them, as they ignored my suggestion and excitedly ordered enough to feed a team of sumo wrestlers.

"You are so negative!" Rose barked at me. "Of course, it will all be delicious!" She sighed ecstatically.

For once, optimism triumphed over skepticism. Actually, I should say that the triumph was so obvious that it could not be denied. My hand roll was spectacular — nearly a Soto-esque masterpiece of layered textures and flavors. Wayne and Rose gloated as the waiter and several helpers bore their turkey-platter-sized order to the table — sans, I might add, the uni that is Rose's favorite.

I ordered a double filet ($27.50), perfectly cooked medium rare, with not a touch of gristle on it, and a side of fabulous cheese grits (fabulously priced at $4.50). Honestly, few restaurants in our city offer such a predictably good experience.

Sardines? Anchovies? Permit me a rant. Recently, my colleague Mr. Mackle and I dined at Seeger's in Buckhead. Among the dishes I ordered were two pairs of itty-bitty sashimi-quality sardine filets afloat in onion broth and scattered with a bit of lemon confit. They sat at the bottom of a very deep bowl, looking like four little silvery boats disappearing on the Styx into the underworld.

A few days later, I went to Aprés Diem, ordered salade Nicoise and had to beg the server to put plain-tinned salted anchovies on it. Earlier, I lunched on pissaladiere at a café in Buckhead, and it was bereft of any detectable anchoiade.

What is the deal?

I love sardines and anchovies. I mean I really love them and they are, for no good reason, all but nonexistent on Atlanta menus or served reluctantly, as if they are ocean offal. In Vernazza, on the Ligurian coast of Italy, in Nice and along the Costa del Sol, I can't get enough fresh sardines and anchovies. Fresh and fried or grilled, they are delicious with lemon. I love salted anchovies blended with almonds and fennel and spread on bread. The absolute high point of one of the worst years of my life — one spent in Augusta — was a meal of anchovies, tomatoes, pork and capers from a recipe by Alice B. Toklas, served at a candle-lit picnic at the levy there.

Why won't Atlanta restaurants less rarefied than Seeger's put fresh anchovies and sardines on their menus? I know they can get them because now and then a restaurateur, knowing my taste for them, has called to announce he has a plate of them awaiting me. We can probably blame the belief that all anchovies and sardines taste like the tinned varieties stacked next to the Vienna sausages and pickled pigs' feet. (Actually, a good version of pigs' feet is missing in the city these days, too!)

For the present, the only place I know to buy something other than a salted anchovy is Salumeria Taggiasca at the old Municipal Market at 209 Edgewood Ave. (404-524-0006). The owner, Franco Boeri, is from Liguria and does sell plain anchovies marinated in oil and lemon. He is also a major supplier to some of our more authentic Italian restaurants. Perhaps we could talk him into holding his excellent products hostage to some fresh sardines and anchovies!

Avoid high prices I've often complained here that, with the exception of the superior Tamarind and Zab e Lee, it's pretty hard to find much difference in the average Thai meal in town. Tamarind is one of my favorite destinations. When Rose offered to take me out for my birthday, this is where we went.

An excellent second-tier Thai venue is Little Bangkok (225 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-315-1530). A hole in the wall that has gotten increasingly more attractive inside (and is no longer neighbored by a Latino pool room), Little Bangkok also features a Chinese menu, but we seldom order from it.

Two incentives to visit the restaurant: First, the Thai specials are almost always excellent. Look for them on the board at the entrance. I especially like the chicken and eggplant and the fish with peppercorns. The second incentive is price. Everything is well under $10.

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