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Building and burning some Cheshire bridges

House of Italy, Babette's, La Tavola and Hong Kong Harbour

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I had a culinary dream a few weeks ago. I was a huge head being wheeled aimlessly around a Hieronymus Bosch-like landscape of cartoon chefs. Every now and then, I would roll to a stop and my jaw would be cranked open by kitchen workers. Then, the chefs, wielding huge knives and speaking fusion-menu gibberish, would hurl food into my gaping mouth. Then my jaw would be ceremoniously cranked shut and I'd resume my procession.

Some dreams are symbolic. This one is just about literal. Way too much of my time is spent driving around aimlessly, looking for a restaurant where I haven't eaten. Friends are completely confused when they ask where we are eating and I say I don't know but get in the car and start driving anyway. "Keep your eyes peeled for something interesting," I say. Thirty minutes later, they are whining ferociously.

Several recent meals resulted from such meandering. Heading toward Buford Highway in search of -- what? -- jellyfish tacos with kim chee, my eye was caught by the sign for House of Italy (2350 Cheshire Bridge Road, 440-325-9994). Wayne became gleeful when he saw a sandwich-board sign out front that read, "ALL YOU CAN EAT BUFFET $6.99" but his happy mood was quickly ruined when he read the fine print: "lunch only."

Still, we decided to give the place a try. In a shopping center that also houses Sonny's Barbecue, House of Italy is like 10,000 other little Italian joints across America. The Italian taste for kitsch -- my mother used to tell me that Italians decorated trailer parks -- hits you in the face immediately. There are yellow sponged walls, a genuine strip-mall faux fireplace, the inevitable plastic red-and-white checked tablecloths and art you can barely stand to look at. I suggest you not sit near the front where a fountain that resembles what I imagine an enormous spleen to look like gurgles incessantly.

The food, selected from a menu laminated in the colors of the Italian flag, is your usual Southern Italian fare. We skipped the appetizer selections of bruschetta, calamari and mussels and decided to split an order of spaghetti carbonara ($11.95) for a first course. The request seemed to throw our server into a state of total confusion. For some reason, he presumed we would also be dividing our two entrees as well. An exhausting conversation finally clarified the matter. Wayne looked at me disapprovingly for my impatience.

The spaghetti carbonara is made with "Mario's special sauce." It's hard to go wrong with eggs, cream and cheese but Mario's special sauce was grossly underrepresented by pancetta, the tastiest ingredient. In fact, the menu says Mario uses prosciutto instead of pancetta. Only tweezers and a magnifying glass could determine which is actually used.

I've been craving chicken marsala for weeks. But why does everyone, including House of Italy, make it with chicken breasts? I want half a chicken, meaning I want flavor. I decided instead to order the veal marsala ($13.95). Oy. Half my tiny portion, served with a pile of spaghetti, was tough. If I'm going to eat something as politically incorrect as veal, I want it melt-in-my-mouth tender. Sliced white mushrooms, everyone's favorite fungal filler, covered the dish. You know what? I've had worse.

Wayne ordered herb-crusted salmon ($13.95). It arrived on a dish the size of a serving platter. I have no idea why it's called "herb-crusted" because the fish's flesh was starkly pink. It was a big hunk of fish with a strangely mushy texture, probably from over-marinating, served over a tomato beurre blanc with a crunchy saffron risotto cake. Some sauteed veggies were on either side of the enormous plate. We never found the arugula salad the menu promised with it. However, we were served decent Caesar salads at the meal's start.

I hate being rough on a little place like this, but frankly the prices seem a bit high for the quality. If everything were a few dollars cheaper, I'd be more forgiving.

Dining with Puff Rocket

My friend Puff Rocket and I headed down North Highland in search of a restaurant the last warm weekend of November. Puff, mercifully, did not wear his Halloween costume of a pimp's full-length velour coat decorated with hideous feathers.

We ogled Wisteria briefly and then decided to dine at Babette's (573 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-9121). This remains one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants in our city. Its move a year or so ago to a remodeled cottage has only improved the experience of dining on its Euro cuisine. The dining room is cheerful and bistro-like but Puff wanted to eat on the enclosed deck out back.

I wasn't extremely hungry, so I wasn't in the mood for a heavy starter. The server was nice enough to bring me some goat cheese to smear on slices of baguette while Puff, who weighs approximately half what I do, devoured ravioli stuffed with artichokes and olives in a buttery wine sauce ($5.75). A very nice blend of earthy flavors.

It seems like every time I come here, I end up seeing the same dishes on the table. Indeed, Puff ordered the grilled salmon that my last companion here also ate. It's served with roasted grapes and, at $16.75 -- not $3 more than House of Italy's creation -- it is a work of genius. I ordered my usual beef tenderloin topped with fez-sized onion rings ($21.50). It was served with a very mild Gorgonzola sauce, almost a reduction into which the cheese was crumbled. I love it.

Puff finished his meal with creme brûlee ($5) and a diatribe about the virtues of country-western music. It is hard to take seriously the tastes of a man who alternates a pimp's wardrobe with a cowboy's but I agreed that the creme brûlee was like two-stepping in paradise with the best ho in Manhattan.

By the way, Babette's has added some fall menu dishes since my visit just two weeks ago. Notable is the cassoulet and roasted duck with rutabagas. I love rutabagas. Why isn't everyone cooking with them? Also, the restaurant is serving a fixed-price menu through March with a Parisian theme. Your $65 buys a three-course meal with wine and a ticket to the High Museum's Paris exhibit.

Brunching with Dred

My friend Dred likes brunch, which I typically don't. But I do enjoy Dred's company and he endures my aimless driving and indecisiveness. For example, one recent Sunday we decided to try the huge brunch buffet at the Red Chair but I changed my mind and we left. Brunch is supposed to be an indolent affair. I don't want to stand in line to feed myself.

So we drove to Murphy's. The wait was too long. Then we walked across the street to La Tavola (992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430), where we were quickly seated. Dred ordered a special -- delicate smoked trout, served over crunchy asparagus, with poached eggs and hollandaise ($11). For me: poached eggs over rosemary focaccia with chicken sausage, sauced with chicken-sage gravy ($9.95). Both dishes were killer, even if they left me with that brunchy feeling of having just injected my heart with lard.

We also brunched recently at Hong Kong Harbour (2184 Cheshire Bridge, 404-325-7630) on the restaurant's popular dim sum. Normally, I head to Oriental Pearl or Canton House for dim sum but Hong Kong's was impressive. Particularly good were mussels with black bean sauce and green beans with diced pork. You don't see such dishes on most dim sum carts in the city. All the usual offerings, like steamed buns and dumplings, are good too. Be sure to let me know how the chicken feet are.

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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