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A first impression of the Automatic, plus Annapoorna

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Grant Park, which has become Virginia-Highland encircled by housing projects, lacks that glitzier neighborhood's appealing commercial district. Although the 'hood is fronted by Memorial Drive and bisected by Boulevard, those of us living in Grant Park still have to drive considerable distances to dine if we're not in the mood for the limited choices in the area.

One conspicuously missing venue is a coffee shop. Although The Automatic (313 Boulevard, 404-588-9062) doesn't exactly fulfill that purpose, it comes close. Even if you disliked everything else about the place, you'd have to thank owner Todd Semrau for bringing the city's best coffee, from Aurora, to the neighborhood.

Semrau, who pioneered the gentrification of East Atlanta with his Heaping Bowl and Brew, is not a stranger to the Grant Park area. He earlier attempted a diner in the location now occupied by Agave. His signature style is retro and funky, and the new apricot-painted Automatic is quite a looker in that respect. Think cafe in an Airstream trailer. Semrau gutted a tiny building that was home to a notorious bar that required slowing down as you drove by, lest you collide with drunk patrons who seemed to be regularly ejected into the street, where they shook their fists at the traffic and hurled curses back at the building.

They are gone and in their place is an immensely pleasant staff. I've visited the shop, which is open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, twice during the first couple weeks of business, so this is strictly a first impression. The Automatic is mainly a takeout operation -- there's a drive-thru window -- and delivery on a fierce red scooter parked in the middle of the shop will soon be available. There's only one table available for eating in, which is a shame, given how pleasant the shop is.

Besides the usual menu of coffee drinks, the restaurant serves bagels (stuffed with eggs and other ingredients), granola and various baked goods for breakfast. For later dining, there are salads, including a tuna Nicoise, soups, sandwiches, pastas, and a focaccia pizza. The shop also sells Hank's ice cream by the pint and various other grocery items. Wine by the bottle will be available soon.

I've sampled four of the sandwiches and a couple of salads. My favorite is the simplest -- grilled cheese on sourdough toast featuring Swiss, cheddar and goat cheeses. A turkey sandwich that sounds dreadful is weirdly tasty. The shop puts sliced turkey on sourdough with cheddar cheese, mashed potatoes, turkey gravy and a cranberry chutney. Yeah, if I smoked weed, I would be eating these every time I fired up.

Ditto for Elvis' favorite of crunchy peanut butter, honey, ripe bananas and green apple on white bread. But, for the love of Priscilla, please do not serve me the Thai basil beef sandwich until it is restructured. The sandwich features sliced beef on ciabatta with basil, tomato and -- the menu alleges -- a Thai-style ginger dressing. I say that because the final ingredient, peanut butter, overpowers everything else. Yes, Thai cuisine makes use of peanut sauces, but chunky peanut butter is not the same thing.

A chef's salad was a nice pick-me-up and some cold, diced collards topped with avocado slices almost hit the mark, but were just a bit too oily.

Ganesh ate here

Annapoorna (3364-H Chamblee Tucker Road, 770-458-4466) has opened in the space earlier occupied by Shingaar Palace in North Hills Shopping Center. The restaurant, opened by a doctor who lives in Duluth, according to the manager, serves specialties from both southern and northern India. Meat and vegetarian dishes are available.

The restaurant has not changed its frankly bizarre decor with the changeover. It features wallpaper that would be more appropriate to a PoFolks with pretensions to Williamsburg grandeur. Hanging from the floral wallpaper are pictures of various Indian mythological figures. Up front, by the cash register, there is a cool shrine to Ganesh, the elephant god who imparts knowledge.

The food ranges from good to mediocre. Wayne and I encountered the usual tendency by servers in ethnic restaurants to push cliches on American diners. When Wayne asked, "What is curd bath," the manager/server assured him, "Americans do not eat that. Indians only."

"Oh, in that case, we definitely want it," Wayne said. The manager appeared chagrinned but relented.

"What else do we not want?" Wayne asked.

The manager looked at him oddly and walked away.

Actually, the curd bath -- rice cooked in yogurt -- was our favorite dish. It contained cucumber and curry leaves, so it tasted like rice combined with raita to us. But it also had a nice toasty flavor imparted by mustard seeds. Don't miss it. The restaurant's masala vadai was also yummy, if a bit overcooked. It is ground chickpeas -- think socca -- combined with spices and chilies, shaped into patties and deep-fried. They were served with the usual mint and tamarind sauces.

We also tried the restaurant's Chicken 65, which is a featured dish at Zyka in Decatur. Annapoorna's is served Whirly Q-style, encircled by a pinwheel of pale tomato and lemon slices and garnished with sliced onion. The chicken, almost fiery nuggets fried in red spices, was our second-favorite dish after the curd bath.

We also ordered a classic mysore masala dosai, a giant rice-flour crepe filled with seasoned potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peas and carrots, served with a lentil soup for dipping. It was as good as most in town. This once novel dish has become so common that comparison becomes difficult. Lamb pasanda, chunks of lamb cooked in a cream sauce flavored with ground cashews, was likewise typical of similar dishes around town. I have usually had the dish made with ground almonds, however.

The only dish we gave a relative thumbs-down was the aloo-gobi masalam cauliflower and potatoes cooked with ginger, garlic and onion. It's among our favorite dishes at Udipi. Here, the cauliflower is overcooked and the sauce had a metallic taste.

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com

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