The mystique of Paul Luna

The on-again, off-again innovator is back with a new cafe

By now, every Atlanta foodie surely knows Paul Luna's name. After a stint as chef at Bice about 10 years ago, he opened Luna Si, probably the most creative chef-owned restaurant ever to open in our city.

Luna quickly became notorious for his temperamental treatment of diners — staging rages when people asked for salt, stealing the chairs of people who camped at tables, ordering every complainer across the street to Houston's for the meal they really deserved. Ultimately, he left the restaurant, disappeared and then resurfaced to give the city its best tapas venue ever, Eclipse di Luna, a concept he later expanded to Loca Luna.

In the meantime, he developed the curious habit of strolling among diners in very little clothing, occasionally performing a spontaneous strip tease that delighted some but embarrassed others. Then he disappeared again, cooking in a tiny boutique restaurant in the far suburbs, then dropped out again and now he has resurfaced again.

"Paul has calmed down, really he has. He's much more mature," Marco Bracci, his partner in their new venture, Cafe Mystique, told me after dinner there last week. Bracci was at Bice with Luna and has in recent years been on a globe-hopping frenzy of opening successful restaurants and clubs from Miami to London. "We always hoped to do something together and this is the result."

Cafe Mystique is located dead-center in Buckhead in the building that once housed the Peachtree Cafe (268 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-949-9145). The closing of that restaurant, once the quintessential Buckhead singles spot, signaled the death of an era. Luna and Bracci have transformed the restaurant into something softer, less narcissistic and more intimate.

The original space is generally preserved but walls have been painted midnight blue. New wall partitions create a few intimate rooms. Many gauzy cranberry colored curtains help make the space intimate. Broken-tile mosaics cover walls here and there. Lighting is romantic.

The menu does not break new ground, but continues Luna's passion for grazing on small plates. Presentation, however, is unique. Every table contains what Luna is calling a "credenza" — a metal contraption that holds three plates. The menu is divided into three prix-fixe sections. You can order three dishes from a section and these are meant to be shared by two. I find this annoying, first, because it limits one's choices and, second, because it basically charges you for three plates when four would be more appropriate.

I encountered this same game at the restaurant in West Hollywood's Mondrian Hotel a few years ago. People make quite a romantic production out of sharing plates of lovely food ... and you know they are laughing all the way to the bank.

Which is not to say Cafe Mystique is expensive. You can order a credenza of tapas for two, generous portions, for $19, and then follow it with a three-course meal for $29 or select three entrees for $39. You can see how this would add up, however, if you're either dining alone or with more than one other person.

Wayne and I ordered the tapas credenza — we loved saying "credenza" over and over — and loved everything. My favorite was shrimp with braised leeks, feta cheese and tomato fondue. Marinated beef tenderloin is served on skewers, tender and faintly redolent of cinnamon. We loved the flavor of grilled octopus, slightly charred, served over a potato salad full of Spanish black olives. Unfortunately, the octopus had the texture of rubber bands.

Next we ordered the three-course credenza for two. Frankly, this doesn't work very well after the tapas because your first choice on this is a starter, two of which are on the tapas menu. So, by default, we picked the antipasto plate — a very nice selection of cured meats, olives and peppers — but not exactly welcome after the tapas.

The second course is a pasta choice. Wayne insisted on the salt-cured grouper with onions and roasted pepper coulis over pasta — very nice but I was annoyed that I couldn't also sample the saffron risotto with crispy Italian sausage and a fried egg.

Our third choice, the "main course" was roasted pork that I found staggeringly good. It's chunks of roasted pork in a lemony, vinegary sauce, lending it a kind of pickled flavor. While it's labeled South Georgia-style, it reminded me of some Korean treatments of pork I've had. On the other hand, I confess to a slight echo of a longtime white-trash favorite: pickled pig's feet. Do they eat those in South Georgia?

I can't wait to return and sample more of the menu. The credenza of entrees includes roasted chicken with lemon confit, a lamb brochette with coconut milk, a bouillabaisse, braised short ribs and a chimichurri skirt steak. (Trend note: Argentine chimichurri is popping up on menus all over town. Let's give Rocky's credit for debuting a pizza with the sauce years ago.)

The restaurant plans to remain open late, until 1 a.m. on weekend nights within a month or two, and will inaugurate a brunch with jazz soon too.

Complaints? Service is a bit rough, but we were there only a few days after opening. The credenza contraptions occupy a huge amount of space on the tiny tables for two. We saw two people pull an extra table next to theirs to accommodate the credenza and the work they were reviewing. I imagine parking is going to be a problem on weekends, though there is validated valet parking in the lot across the street, for 90 minutes.

But those are small annoyances. I'm delighted to have Luna back in town cooking again. With the arrival of Taka, the new sushi spot down the street, Buckhead may be undergoing a renaissance of quality.

In Midtown
My friend Will Bonner and I paid a visit to Zoe's at Midtown Promenade last week. This Mediterranean grill is still producing mainly excellent cuisine and still gets high marks from me just for playing Cesaria Evora (although it is time, guys, to get another of her recordings).

Will started with a remarkably good special of scallops and white beans garnished with crisp pancetta while I ordered grilled asparagus with shaved asiago cheese.

My only complaint is the way they were served. My asparagus were on a glass plate that looked like a refrigerator butter holder. Will's food was also served on glass. Don't do that. Food shouldn't be served on glass. A knife makes a terrible sound on glass and a clear or frosted backdrop is not eye-appealing.

I couldn't resist my favorite entree here: braised lamb chops with figs in a balsamic reduction, served over truffled mashed potatoes and asparagus. I confess my lamb chops seemed way tiny compared to my visit a year ago, but maybe my appetite has grown.

Will ordered butternut squash ravioli with sage butter. I didn't much care for its extremely oily taste. Will complained too and then wiped the plate of every dribble of butter with his bread while our waiter stood over the table watching. Quick-witted, attentive and able to put Will in his place when I could not, our server Tommy is Waitron of the Week.

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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