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Bye-bye burritos!

Ryan Aiken opens Misto, plus Miro's Garden and Nava

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The last time I saw Ryan Aiken, he had just become a father for the first time and had taken up yoga. A talented young chef who trained under Alix Kenagy at the still-missed Partners and then became chef at the equally missed Terra Cotta, Aiken opened Burrito Art in East Atlanta in 1996. I remember wondering the day of our conversation if yoga would help a chef of his talent remain blissfully content to make burritos.

Actually, they were the best of the designer burritos in our city and the East Atlanta location gave rise to several more. But my speculation was correct. Aiken grew tired of running a burrito chain. He recently turned over operation of the Emory location to his business partner and he closed the Howell Mill location. Now, just after his second son, Liam, was born, Aiken is back in the kitchen. He has opened a new restaurant, Misto, at Burrito Art's former 1950 Howell Mill Road location (404-425-0030).

The interior of the new Italian-American restaurant was redone in 10 days. It's quite a looker. There are softly lit, pumpkin-colored walls full of nostalgic Italian photos and bric-a-brac, but the main focal point is a dramatic black curtain that divides the restaurant and frames a view of a handsome granite and copper bar. Misto features a surprisingly comprehensive selection of Italian wines.

The food, true to Aiken's talents, is straightforward and features fresh ingredients with surprising touches here and there. Think Terra Cotta gone Italian. A special starter features a row of fat seared scallops, pan seared until they are glossy-brown in white wine, butter and lemon. It sounds elementary but the sauce is so rich you want to spoon it up. Ravioli are stuffed with a blend of ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and flavored with pumpkin. A cranberry reduction sauce gives the sweetness some zip.

For an entree I chose fresh, broad pappardelle in a lamb ragu made with veal jus, seasoned with rosemary. A scattering of fresh mint added the unexpected touch of levity to the hearty sauce. Wayne picked pan-seared Atlantic salmon served over a mild risotto cake. The fish, crispy and oily, was spotted with dollops of fresh pesto and sauced with a reduction featuring grapefruit and anise.

The restaurant is serving as its table bread one of the best ciabattas I've ever tasted. The source is a secret but whoever it is deserves an award. For dessert, we ordered a huge frozen lemon that had been hollowed and filled with lemon sorbet. Espresso is Illy, smooth as silk and overpriced at $5 for a doubleshot.

The staff is excellent. We were happy to run into the beautiful and funny Elizabeth Baker, who was at St. Agnes Tea Garden years ago and did a stint as bartender at Fritti. Our solicitous waiter Darrell is Waitron of the Week.

More tapas

Remember last week when I wrote that the tapas trend is threatening to become our city's culinary Godzilla? I visited yet another venue last week, Miro's Garden (1150 Euclid Ave., 404-221-1604) in Little Five Points, where La Fonda used to be located.

The decor hasn't changed much. It still features the fountain designed by Christine Sibley, the wonderfully wacky artist and my former neighbor who died a few years ago. There is some dramatically overpriced art in the corridor leading to the restaurant. Although I think it's a kick to name a restaurant after Spanish artist Joan Miro, the menu here sure isn't inspired by his wildly experimental work. That is to say, the food is very prosaic.

Grilled artichokes and roasted red peppers, highly recommended by our server, did not taste grilled. They tasted freshly dumped from a can and piled into a casserole dish for baking with a bit of manchego cheese. Sliced chorizo tasted fine but was a very stingy serving. Some cheese should be added to the plate. Calamari is sauteed and tossed with tomatoes, red onions, cilantro, paprika and cayenne. How come it tasted so bland? Other tapas include the usuals -- fried plantains and potatoes, Serrano ham, seared scallops (which weirdly cost less than the calamari) and grilled shrimp.

I sampled only one entree -- the grilled flank steak with the tasty-sounding roasted shallot-veal reduction. The steak was cooked just as I ordered it and it would have been fine if it didn't taste like it had been marinated in those packaged London broil spices my mother used 30 years ago. And honestly, I've never felt so overwhelmed by garlic. I awoke that night in a dream that ... well, I was trying to figure out how to use a garlic press as a sex toy. No, I'm not kidding!

Navaland

My good friend Brad Lapin has returned to his home in Rome and our four months of regular Friday lunching have come to an end. We lunched at Nava (3060 Peachtree Road, 404-240-1984) last Friday and realized neither of us had been there since our last lunch a year or so earlier.

I still dig Nava, our city's most haute purveyor of Southwestern cuisine, even though its kiva-inspired decor looks a bit Neverlandish now. And I've never seen so many anorexic women in tight clothes in one place. A woman who had to be 120 years old with long dyed blond hair and the flesh completely starved from her body actually told me I was handsome and gave me her phone number when I came out of the restroom. Lord!

Brad and I ate well. I started with the day's special soup -- an earthy blend of pureed root vegetables with some crispy enchiladas as garnish. Reluctantly, because the memory of Miro's steak was still on my breath, I ordered the grilled Kobe flank steak here. But it was great, served with a chipotle barbecue sauce. However it was served over enough fire-roasted onions to re-destroy my breath had I chosen to eat them.

Brad ordered the steak and Portabella mushroom taco -- a burrito, really -- with smoked-tomato barbecue sauce. Espresso took 10 minutes to come to the table and then tasted thinner than water.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or email him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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