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Beautiful dreamer

Spice has high aspirations but falls expensively short

I'm sure you've had those moments when a person or object suddenly captivates you and your brains are thrown out the window. Desire overcomes you. The object grows more beautiful with obsession.
Remember, for example, the cheerleader in the movie American Beauty? She became, in the protagonist's imagination, Aphrodite herself — love, beauty and pleasure incarnated. But, of course, on closer inspection, she proved only to be another gum-smacking teenage virgin. Whatever!
Who could resist Spice (793 Juniper St., 404-875-4242)? Or perhaps I should say: Who could resist its billboard in the parking lot next door? Erect, towering, emblazoned with a female torso decorated with a big chili pepper, it's like a textbook example of advertising's use of the sublimated phallus and the explicit female anatomy. You roll your eyes, but you can't help gazing at the restaurant it advertises. You begin to plan your visit. You must see it.
It's beautiful, no doubt. Located in a richly redone Midtown house, it sits high off the street big windows casting a luxe glow at night. The place is gorgeous, it looks like many restaurants in Los Angeles, right down to the clientele wearing too much black and the lean young women with pouty red mouths and bodies that belong on ... big billboards, carrying plates to the table. Our server, Derek, herewith named Waitron of the Week, must have noticed our agog looks and actually offered us a tour of the glittering restaurant. We declined but I snooped around myself.
The bar is backlit by a soaring blue glass window. Wine racks curve sinuously on either side up to a landing where aquariums are built into the wall like television sets. They are sided by glass-etched constructions of the male and female anatomy. This "spicy" theme continues throughout the restaurant, mainly in photography, but in other accents, like glass sculpture, too. There are comfy banquettes that display their occupants, tables virtually surrounded by windows and intimate spaces here and there. There are, besides public dining rooms on the ground and loft floor, two private dining rooms, and both are sumptuous.
Obviously, the restaurant is geared to the trendy and one is tempted to say it's a refuge for expatriated Los Angeles types. Its ambiance reminds me of the Food Studio, Dish, South City Kitchen and, to a lesser extent, Floataway Cafe. So, we can agree the place is beautiful. But how's its flesh taste?
Not like much, I'm afraid — at least not during my one visit. The food, like the interior, is dramatically presented, but is as often mysteriously tasteless. It's a bit heart-breaking.
An example: A fried spring roll encasing duck confit and scallions is served with a blackberry sauce and a couple of fat berries ($8). It comes to the table nestled into the well of a big white bowl and causes your tablemate to exclaim: "My God, who let Guenter Seeger in here?" In other words, it's an extraordinarily tiny portion, a few nibbles, like Seeger's trademark dishes. The difference is that a gram of food blooms with a thousand flavors at Seeger's. Here, the spring roll was virtually a flavorless mystery meat with utterly no taste of scallions, so that mainly you think, "blackberry jam."
I also tried the panko-crusted Baja scallops. Yes, I know big scallops cost big bucks, but I felt silly paying $9.50 for two scallops with mediocre treatment. Panko is sweet Japanese breadcrumbs; Eddie Hernandez uses them to incredible effect at Sundown Cafe. But I'm not sure it's the right choice for the already sweet flesh of scallops. Yes, the restaurant attempts to play the heightened sweetness — which really pervades a lot of the food here — against what it confoundingly calls a "fiery Zinfandel sauce." It tasted like a slightly peppery marinara to me.
I was delighted to see a rarity on Atlanta menus offered here: pan-seared foie gras. I get sick of going to Atlanta restaurants, ordering foie gras and receiving a hunk of pate. This is the real thing — a smallish piece of duck liver, very nicely cooked and, again, played against a rather sweet sauce with raisins, green apples and smoked bacon confit. Is it worth its $18 price? I think if you love foie gras, you'll pay it happily.
Entrees are divided into fish and meat sections. We only sampled seafood, so I'm not able to comment on the kitchen's rack of lamb, lamb sausage, veal strip and beef tenderloin. Generally, we agreed our two seafood entrees were much better than our appetizers, which is a bit unusual in new restaurants.
On Derek's recommendation, I ordered jumbo prawns grilled and "lacquered" in lobster sauce ($24). The dish was really beautiful: Five big prawns were nestled together over a very tasty ratatouille of baby tomatoes and squash, with potatoes seared in olive oil. The layered dish was garnished with trendy but surprisingly tasteless daikon sprouts.
Wayne's yellowtail red snapper was lightly encrusted with pistachios and sesame and served over colorful spaghettini and baby vegetables ($24). A slightly sweet citrus reduction sauced the pasta. We liked it.
Desserts, too, are pretty and, if you tire of the cuisine's prevalent sweetness, you might want to head, as Wayne did, for the delicious lemon assiette, which includes a lemon tart, lemon crepes and lemon ice cream ($7). I'm sorry that my own choice, an assortment of little cookies and other confections ($7), only continued the theme of fluff without much taste.
What does all of this get you? A $120 bill in our case. That's nearly a meal at Bacchanalia. Well, as that cheerleader might have said: "Nuff said, mmkay?"



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