One is the loneliest number

Sage advice, La Tavola treats and perennial complaints

I've been writing this column so long that I've gotten used to e-mail like the one I recently received from a woman who mentioned that her mother used to read my column to her when she was in elementary school.

I'm not telling you this to boast of my ability to put children to sleep. I'm just trying to give you a temporal perspective — we're talking over 15 years — when I say that I had never returned a dish to the kitchen until last week. I've always taken it as my job to eat the inedible, to endure an insult for at least a few bites so that readers might be fairly warned.

But last week I erupted into spontaneous rage at Sage (121 Sycamore St., Decatur, 404-373-5574) after the waiter placed a $12 appetizer special on our table. At first we assumed that the grand mound of salad greens with a zillion sliced cherry tomatoes was missing its pricey ingredient — duck confit. But after a moment's excavation with a fork we found a few shreds of the stuff coyly hiding behind a lettuce leaf, like a slice of truffle buried in a head of iceberg lettuce.

"I guess they forgot the tweezers," Wayne said, trying to spear one of the shreds with his fork.

I called the waiter over. "I have to tell you," I said. "This is a colossal insult. To charge people $12 for this is outrageous. At half the cost, I might not object, but I've never seen anything like this. Is this a mistake or have cherry tomatoes become rarer than truffles?"

"It's not a mistake, but why don't I take it back to the kitchen?" the waiter suggested.

"Please!" I said.

The rest of our meal — except for stale, stone-cold bread — was acceptable. My marinated flank steak, served with Yukon gold potatoes and haricot verts, was delicious, though cooked rare instead of the medium-rare I ordered ($15). Wayne ate lightly, ordering only a salad of roasted beets and Asian pears with walnuts, red onions and a few greens ($5). The pears would be more appetizing were they not blended with the beets and turned purple, so that they lose their integrity, holding on only weakly to their texture to distinguish themselves.

Sage remains an attractive and popular dining room. Chef Daniel Atwood's menu of French- and Italian-inspired dishes is compelling. But the kitchen's execution remains short of his ambitions and, where the duck confit is concerned, I can only imagine the accountants have way too much control. We were followed out the door by one of the owners, apologizing for the salad. Whether the restaurant perpetuates the insult remains an open question.

In Virginia-Highland
La Tavola (992 N. Highland Ave., 404-873-5430) is a great choice for dining on a Sunday night in Atlanta. The restaurant's brunch crowd has cleared out and those recovering from Saturday night have yielded to families and those dreading Monday morning. It's low-key and cozy.

I watched a boy of about 9 pop clams out of their shells with his fingers while his mother wiped his mouth and his father declaimed about the agony of working to support his family. A bartender climbed on a shelf to inventory wines in the rack, pouring the last dribbles of various bottles into glasses for another employee to sample. Near the restroom, a couple leaned against the wall, arguing. "If you get your nipple pierced, I'm history," the young woman told her boyfriend, who looked at the floor dejectedly, wearing a shirt that looked like a map of the universe.

The restaurant, under the stewardship of Executive Chef Joey Masi, offers predictably good food these days, though you won't find the kind of edgy, envelope-pushing sensibility that rules at Sotto Sotto. Service is courteous and professional, if a bit on the smiley, back-slapping side.

I started with seared sea scallops, nicely burnished and sweet, served with polenta and some sauteed spinach ($9.25) while Wayne ordered pepper-encrusted carpaccio with arugula and shaved Reggiano ($6.95).

My entree was the balsamic-roasted chicken with roasted potatoes, artichokes and mushrooms ($14.95). It's a good dish, though I personally would favor a stronger hit of a good balsamic vinegar. The boned breast borders dangerously on the dry side.

Wayne ordered spaghettini with tomatoes, basil and veal meatballs ($14.95) — good and simple.

My one enduring complaint about this restaurant is its obnoxious toast to itself on the menu. "No one is a stranger here," it begins, promising that "if you listen carefully in the midst of laughter and conversation, you'll hear joy. Suddenly you'll realize what it's all about. And it all happens here — around La Tavola."

Yeah, uh-huh, OK.

Two perennial complaints
Meredith Bell, poses the perennial springtime question:

"Why is it so hard to find good food in an outdoor setting in Atlanta? We've got great weather and people who want to be out and active.

"This past weekend we really tried. We live in Midtown and searched for a sunny patio on Saturday. We gave in with trepidation to Joe's on Juniper, hoping (though it's owned by the Metrotainment group) that it could rise above the Einstein's mediocrity. Alas, no.

"We went for a run Sunday and finished at Piedmont Park and rewarded ourselves with lunch at Willy's. Nice, sunny patio with good (not great, but doesn't pretend to be) food and a welcoming patio. We'll definitely go back.

"Maybe I'm getting old (40s, I admit it) and have been able to refine my taste a bit. I do notice that Joe's, Einstein's, etc., have a much younger crowd, some of which are not that far removed from ramen noodles in the dorm but, please, can't we have both good patio and good food for the post-30s crowd?"

Well, Meredith, I was with you until you promoted Willy's, which I walked out of last week when I realized it didn't have table service. (Yeah, I'll return.) My associate Jerry Portwood raised the excellent question, too, why the restaurant didn't find some way to put at least part of its patio facing the lovely green of Piedmont Park instead of traffic-clogged, fume-filled Piedmont Avenue.

There are certainly some excellent outdoor dining spots in Atlanta. To name a few: Canoe, Anis, Soleil, the relatively new Rue de Paris, Fritti, Babette's, the La Fonda restaurants, La Tavola, reviewed here this week. Really, there are many outdoor dining spots. Those conspicuous, see-and-be-seen spots that basically put you in the middle of the street are the best known but usually not the best choice.

Perennial complaint No. 2 comes from Clay Hughes: "Since I assume you are read by many servers, here's a thought: Pay attention to us single people. I eat out often by myself and am usually ignored in the beginning, during and at the end of the meal — almost 90 percent of the time. Sure, we represent less tip, but good attention will get me back again and again; rotten service will never get me to return."

As I've written here countless times, I love dining alone with a book and I know what Clay is talking about. I immediately determine to leave a minimum tip when the first words I hear are: "Just one?"

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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