Making Spanish eyes

Eclipse di Luna is the next best thing to being there

Recently, I whined to Wayne, my partner, that my bank balance is a lot lower than it was a year ago.

"Do you think it has anything to do with spending four months of the last year in Spain?" he snapped.

It really is a dreadful, impoverishing thing to fall in love with a faraway place. I had planned to spend this month in Spain but, between my plummeting bank account and the suspicion that I will never finish my very overdue doctoral dissertation if I keep running away, I canceled my trip.

It's funny how life can offer you some compensation when you make a sacrifice. A few days after canceling my trip, I found myself sitting next to two women from Barcelona at a coffee shop and, grieving with me the closing of Andaluz, where one could hear decent flamenco one night a week, they recommended I try Eclipse di Luna (746 Miami Circle, 404-846-0449). A few days later, sitting at the bar at Sundown Cafe, Mike Tuohy, former chef at Murphy's, said he'd had a good meal there recently too.

It has been a long time since I visited Eclipse, which was opened by popular chef Paul Luna and partner James Ehrlich in 1997. It introduced the city to creative tapas dining and became one of my favorite lunch spots. Luna moved on about two years ago, leaving the restaurant (along with Loca Luna in Midtown) in Erlich's very capable hands.

So, Wayne and I decided to visit on a recent Sunday night and we agreed we had one of the best meals for the money we could remember in some time. We were happy to see Henry Moran, our longtime favorite waiter from La Fonda in Little Five Points. The restaurant looks better than ever and was hosting a Brazilian band that Sunday night.

Between the convivial atmosphere and the menu, I felt as close to Spain as I've felt in Atlanta. Although many of the dishes are interpretations of classic Spanish tapas, I've not encountered anything as authentic in quite a while. Tapas prices are close to half what Andaluz was charging — most well under $5. And dishes are far more savory.

We ate until we could barely walk. A good example of an interpreted dish here is espinacas, or spinach, which is about the only vegetable besides lettuce you can routinely count on finding in Spain's restaurants. There, it is usually cooked to death, frequently with animal fat and cheese, delicious if not very healthy. Eclipse's version is just as delicious but lighter. The spinach is sauteed in some oil with raisins and pine nuts.

Classic serrano ham, the trademark dish of Spain, is served with roasted red pepper salad and olives. Tender snails are stewed with big cloves of roasted garlic and Spanish paprika in the savory style of Galicia, probably my favorite culinary region of Spain. Tuna, cut into cubes is grilled exactly as I've had in Madrid's oldest tapas bar, but served over stewed artichokes and tomatoes here.

There is smoked mackerel over greens with grated horseradish, grilled skirt steak with marinated onions, oxtail stew in the style of Cadiz, fried calamari, an amazing empanada of roasted duck and sweet potatoes, little ribs in aged balsamic vinegar, patatas bravas and white beans stewed with roasted red peppers and tomato. The montadito — my favorite breakfast sandwich in Spain — isn't a real montadito here but becomes a nonetheless delicious piece of chorizo on grilled bread with manchego cheese and a thick slice of a grilled hot chili.

We also tried the paella ($18) — a kitchen-sink version made with saffron rice, mussels, chicken, chorizo and shrimp. We liked it but, overall, preferred the tapas. Dessert was a very good flan, completely airless, and cafe con leche.

Here and there
I seem to eat better each time I visit The Red Chair on Amsterdam Avenue in Midtown. Last week, I dined there with my friend Tim from Asheville. I ordered a special — a beef filet with a red pepper sauce and crabmeat ($23.95) — and found it better than any steak I've eaten for the money in quite a while.

Tim was just as fond of his turkey meatloaf sandwich with sundried tomato mayo and enormous side of onion rings ($8.95). Bread pudding with dried cherries would be perfect if the Hershey's-style chocolate sauce were upgraded ($5.75).

Service at the restaurant remains a bit eccentric. Our server Friday night put us in stitches because he talked faster than a tobacco auctioneer, often seeming to sprint from the table mid-sentence. I asked his name twice and, had I been able to understand his reply, I'd print it here. Whoever you are, you are Waitron of the Week.

I had lunch at Roasters on Lenox Road with my friend Christopher last week. The crowd at Roasters, where I hadn't eaten in well more than a year, always reminds me of the Colonnade's, but 10 to 15 years younger. I had a decent lunch of the house rotisserie chicken with lima beans and macaroni and cheese. Christopher, roughly the size of my index finger, ate a salad.

I must say the restaurant is looking a bit frayed about the edges and could use some sprucing up.

Nayarit on Boulevard in Grant Park is still a spectacular bargain for authentic tacos, tortas and, on weekends, pozole and menudo.

Gossip and feedback
Paul Luna, mentioned above, has taken over the old Peachtree Cafe location — formerly ground-zero for yuppies — and is opening a Moroccan-style restaurant, according to the culinary rumor mill. Wags say the restaurant will feature relentless belly dancing because it will give the chef-owner a good reason to bare his own midriff, et. al.

That aside, I can't wait. My palate is still tingling from an astounding tagine made from pounded rose petals I ate in Paris at La Mansouria last winter. Atlanta has a few North African restaurants but they mainly try to pass off kitschy ambiance in place of good kitchen quality.

What sad news is this? Our city's best vegetarian chef, Michael Elsen, is waiting tables instead of cooking. Olive Bistro, probably my favorite for simple, totally fresh Middle Eastern mezze, is opening at Midtown Place on Ponce de Leon.

Still no word on Wood Fire, Mike Tuohy's planned re-do of the old Marra's Seafood Grille on Cheshire Bridge. It's a bad time to be trying to raise money to open a restaurant. Noodle, the Decatur pho shop, has opened at 903 Peachtree near Joe Muggs.

Highland Tap's owner called to correct my report that the menu doesn't report the type of beef they are serving. In fact, he said, the menu says very clearly that the restaurant serves "certified Angus beef." I stand corrected and will visit the ophthalmologist soon.

Certified Angus beef, by the way, roughly compares to at least mid-grade "choice" designation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Thus, if you dine in a restaurant that labels its steaks "choice," you will probably be getting a lower grade, in terms of fat marbling and maturity. The USDA's requirements are so liberal now that 75 percent of "choice" beef is at the low end of the scale, with less marbling than the certified Angus designation.

Some certified Angus beef rises to the same level as the USDA's "prime" designation, but not all.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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