Old favorites revisited

The good, the really good and the not good enough

After a recent performance at Actor's Express, we dined at the Food Studio in King Plow Arts Center (887 West Marietta St., 404-815-6677). This artful little restaurant is operated by the Bold American Food Company, the same folks who own South City Kitchen and La Tavola.
There are few restaurants in our city as purely beautiful as this one. The mood, set by low lighting and lots of candles, is romantic. But the designers here brought some hard, modern edges to the earthy walls of the old factory so that the overall effect is postmodern without too much irony. I really love the space.
Executive Chef Christopher Brandt has created a terrific menu, even if it taxes the fat-free diner. Wayne had to skip the foie gras with cherry-vanilla gastrique over micro greens ($13) and the duck confit with caramelized shallots, dried blueberries and thyme on an herbed crepe ($8). He headed instead to a perfectly prepared dish of ahi tuna tartare with scallions, mint and dots of chili oil and chervil ($10).
Fall's arrival should mean lots of root vegetables on our city's menus. I was happy to see a salad of beet and chevre at the Food Studio ($8). Gussied up with (the now ubiquitous) white truffle oil and baby greens, the dish pays the purple root, which your mother forced you to eat with sugary vinegar, proper homage.
Entrees are creative without fussiness. My lamb tenderloin ($18) was served over cucumber and tomato salad with couscous lightly doused with a lime-yogurt dressing. The distant echo of Middle-Eastern flavors is really quite brilliant. Just as good was Wayne's grilled smoked salmon — a remarkable piece of fish washed lightly in a balsamic reduction — with snow-pea shoots and wild rice pilaf ($18).
If it's been a while since you've dined here, it's time to go back. The sometimes rather outré silliness of the past — like fusion dishes with eye-jabbing garnishes — is gone. Brandt and sous chef Todd Mussman are cooking with subtlety and invention.
Roman Lily revivified
Speaking of the Food Studio, one of its former chefs, Justin Churchill, is now chef de cuisine at the Roman Lily Cafe (668 Highland Ave., 404-653-1155). Rose D'Agostino and I recently dined very well there.
This restaurant, which opened as a funky diner with food whose quality was all over the map, really appears to have grown up. The dining room, with its open kitchen, features some strong art these days. The menu is now a very adult single sheet of card stock (but it's time to kiss the cutesy language — "samiches" and "lil' nibbles" — bye-bye once and for all).
Best of all, Churchill has taken control not only of the menu's execution but its design. This is something all restaurant owners need to learn. If you hire a good chef, he needs to have control of the menu. A chef should have the freedom to impose his own personality on the cuisine in the way any other artist does with his work.
A special soup of smoked chicken stock with mushrooms and white truffle oil had Rose and I lapping at our bowls like thirsty dogs ($4.50). Lamb tenderloin, grilled and served almost rare, was accompanied by braised fennel salad and a killer square of scalloped sweet potatoes. The dish is a bargain at $13. Rose ordered a tasty special of blackened shrimp over dirty rice made with black beans. It tasted great, though I confess the resurrection of Paul Prudhomme's famous "blackening" technique, occurring all over town, mystifies me. It's usually a direct route to heartburn for me.
The change at Roman Lily is quite remarkable and should prompt return visits from those who grew tired of the unpredictable cuisine. My one serious criticism? The plates. Churchill's work needs much better china for improved presentation.
Sotto Sotto just so-so
We were happy to name Sotto Sotto best Italian restaurant in the city a few weeks ago. Frankly, we did so with some trepidation. Recently we dined with a bunch of foodies who complained that the restaurant had become overpriced, that portions had shrunk and that, in the frequent absence of the owner Riccardo Ullio, quality itself was unpredictable.
I'm afraid Wayne, Rose and I had just that experience recently. The kitchen delivered the wrong pasta to Rose. The minuscule portion of the mis-delivered pasta astonished us. In fact, it was reason enough to insist that the correct pasta, the to-die-for lasagnette, be sent. It arrived and was also an incredibly small portion indifferently placed on the plate.
I ordered the roasted pheasant with mostarda — one of my favorite dishes there. When the dish came to the table, it featured two itty-bitty pieces of cherry mostarda, barely bigger than raisins. I asked for more and the kitchen had run out.
There was a great flurry of apologies and offers to comp our bill, but that all added to the unpleasantness, frankly. As a disturbing footnote to this I am sorry to report, too, that several of the pizzas I've ordered next door at the new Fritti have been less than state-of-the-art and the prices can be flabbergasting.
We're not anywhere near ready to abandon our favorite Italian bistro and its new pizzeria, but we're sad that we can't rely on predictably good food these days.

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