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Bargain hunting during Midtown Restaurant Week

Visits to Ecco and Serpas

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If you are determined to eat in a decent restaurant and not pay full price, it's easy these days. You can subscribe to e-mail services like Scoutmob that save you as much as 50 percent. And there's always food festivals or some kind of neighborhood special under way, like the recent Midtown Restaurant Week. It arrived on the heels of Downtown Restaurant Week and preceded Cobb County Restaurant Week (Sept. 11-18).

Typically, during these weeks, diners can choose from options on a three-course, prix fixe menu. Cost is usually $25, although Cobb County's is $20.10. Honestly, these menus aren't always big bargains. If you ordered à la carte from regular menus and skipped dessert or an appetizer, you'd often spend about the same or less. (So if your dessert is kind of crappy, you know why.)

Nonetheless, these are good opportunities to try a variety of dishes without breaking the bank. And, believe me, restaurants get slammed during these specials. So never fail to make a reservation.

Midtown Restaurant Week posted its participating restaurants' menus online and we decided to try two of them — Serpas (659 Auburn Ave., 404-688-0040) and Ecco (40 Seventh St., 404-347-9555). We had good meals at both restaurants, and both were packed even though we dined on Sunday and Monday, usually light nights in our city.

I picked the two restaurants because it's been quite a while since I visited either, and both offered more appealing menus than many others. That doesn't mean in Serpas' case that the menu was particularly novel. My entrée of crispy pork belly over grits, for example, is ubiquitous. Chef-owner Scott Serpas tops it with a smoked tomato cream that I found very appealing, but about half the needed quantity.

Wayne chose beef brisket, another common dish, here topped with crumbled feta and served with watermelon slices and potato salad. Likewise, the brisket was delicious, but about a third pure fat that Wayne trimmed away.

For a starter, I had probably my favorite dish of the evening — two crispy tacos stuffed with barbecued beef and a salsa of tomatillo and jicama. They were messy as hell but who cares? Wayne ordered the salad of a single, thick slice of "vine-ripe tomato" with blue cheese and candied pecans. The tomato's quality was not enough at summer's peak to be served this way, but basil vinaigrette bumped up the flavor, if not the texture.

Dessert was a plate full of beignets, apple compote for Wayne, and something like a gigantic MoonPie of chocolate cake and marshmallow cream for me.

Serpas is located in a former cotton warehouse from the early 1900s. It's part of Studioplex, a residential loft development. The restaurant is great on the eyes but hard on the ears when it's crowded — one of those places you begin to edit your conversation to keep it minimal and avoid asking "What?" repeatedly.

Ecco, operated by Fifth Group Restaurants, remains one of the best restaurants in our city. Chef Micah Willix's menu is perfect for grazing on house-cured meats, cheeses, small plates and wood-fired pizzas, along with pastas and a few entrées.

Ecco is notable, too, for its almost glamorous interior with low, dramatic lighting, a completely open kitchen and a large bar that's comfortable for dining. Although it's a fairly large space, the acoustics are not deafening. I could even hear our excellent waiter without forcing him to stoop by the table.

Our meal included some notable tastes, such as a starter of golden globes of fried goat cheese in a bit of honey and black pepper. We also ordered the plate of finocchiona salami, bresaola and prosciutto.

My entrée continued the theme of Euro-style meats. It was a large link of grilled house-made sausage with gigantic, white corona beans. What took me by surprise was a slightly sweet, but unobtrusive taste. It turned out to be Muscadine vincotto. That's made from highly reduced — almost syrupy — grapes.

Wayne ordered a flawless risotto with shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Other entrées offered included roasted trout with the now-fashionable piquillo peppers, and shrimp with smoked paprika.

I think it's fair to say that Ecco offered the week's most interesting menu. At least until dessert arrived. A lemon-buttermilk cake with blueberry conserves was mommy-good but not up to the rest of the menu.

Worst. Hosting. Ever.

I'll be taking a first look at Empire State South next week. I followed a wonderful lunch there with a less-than-wonderful dinner with two others. But the restaurant had been open only a week and was utterly slammed.

I will mention that while we had perfect table service, we encountered a host who was so unpleasant it was almost comical. Two readers of our Omnivore blog reported the same experience. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by the crowd, but when we appeared, he literally turned his back to us, scanning the crowd ... or something.

When I told him we were without reservations, he curtly told us there were no tables. Then he turned away again. I asked him if we could wait. He said we could sit at the bar "if you can find a seat." Then he turned away again, talking to another employee.

He needs to visit One Midtown Kitchen where the world's coolest host works.

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