The Roman Lily Cafe, which closed a year or so ago, was a landmark Atlanta restaurant with a fibrillating heart. Opened by Calavino Donati on a lonely strip of Highland Avenue that has since been thoroughly developed, the restaurant waxed and waned in quality depending on ... well, it was hard to tell.
As with most passionate people, Donati could be counted on for a taste of drama. One of my favorite memories is when she turned the kitchen over for a night to Geneva Francais, a talented chef who had operated a compellingly unique restaurant called the African Brown Bag for a few years. People happily paid a fairly hefty price to eat Geneva's fascinating fusion cooking again, but who knew there wouldn't be enough food, served from common serving platters, to go around? Donati stood by, chewing her fingernails off while she forced a huge smile and muttered, "Oh no ... oh no ... oh no ..."
Now, after a hiatus, she has returned to the business and opened Calavino's (350 Mead Road, 404-373-5220) in Oakhurst, in the spot formerly occupied by Oakhurst Grill. The drama has already begun. As evidence of Donati's passionate nature, check out my Oct. 2 post on our food blog, OmnivoreATL.com. A reader complains that Donati seemed "stoned" and was too touchy-feely when he visited the restaurant. Donati makes a lengthy explanation – she wasn't "stoned" but exhausted from working for the restaurant's opening. In actuality, it's her naturally "altered" personality and affectionate style that make her such an attractive character.
Her redo of the garish interior of the former occupant is welcome. Like the Roman Lily, it's simple and stresses the architecture, rather than decoration. A takeout shop, featuring prepared dishes, will open soon in an adjoining space.
The chef is Michael Connelly, himself a character of no small repute. (I laugh thinking of the two of them working together.) The menu greatly reprises the mainly Italian cuisine at Roman Lily. The evening of my visit, however, Connelly offered six specials, along with a five-course tasting menu. I was curious to see how he might influence the menu, so I paid my $45 for an adventure.
I was mainly very pleased. My first course featured thick slices of red and gold beets layered with Gorgonzola mousse, topped with curly frisse, on a plate with balsamic squiggles. That was followed by two oversized, seared scallops in a bowl with Romano gratin – a delicious study in creamy textures. Next was a petite rack of New Zealand lamb over a succotash of peas, fava beans, corn and diced red peppers. This was the only dish that seriously faltered, first because the lamb needed better seasoning, second because the succotash was overcooked.
By the fourth course, I was already stuffed. It included a hefty chunk of pan-seared halibut over a squash ratatouille and (mushy) baby red carrots crisscrossed like swords atop the browned fish. The final course was a sampler of available desserts – tiramisu, roasted banana cheesecake and chocolate-raspberry mousse cake. I disliked the mousse cake. Chocolate and raspberry is a flavor combination I wish would be suspended until my death, but I know I'm a minority in that opinion.
Wayne ordered from the regular menu – a competent Caesar salad and a bowl of fettuccine with a white-wine-caper sauce. The pasta was a bargain at $8. It bears mention, considering the fairly substantial cost of the tasting menu, that dining here is otherwise inexpensive. Most entrees are less than $15. Appetizers hover around $8 and most serve two.
In East Atlanta Village
Another gastropub has opened, and this one is in a surprising location – East Atlanta Village. The Glenwood (1263 Glenwood Ave., 404-622-6066) is open daily, except Monday, for dinner and lunch (or brunch on weekends). My immediate advice: Go.
The restaurant is located in the spot originally gentrified by Camelli's, which was, to my taste, the best restaurant in EAV after Iris. It closed and a strange vegan cafe featuring "live food" opened. Now it's all about beer and dead food. Hurrah!
The chef is Ryan Stewart, who formerly worked at BluePointe. His food is creative and, really, a bargain for its quality. There are two impediments. First, as Christiane Lauterbach noted in her review in Knife & Fork, the ear-splitting rock music could be turned way down. One song was so repetitive and so incomprehensible that Wayne became obsessed with getting the servers to tell him the title of the song.
There was one problem with that – getting a server's attention at all. I'm sorry to say service ranged from indifferent to clueless until the owner of the restaurant happened to come by our table and I asked a few questions.
That aside, we dined very well. The highlight of the meal was my pork osso buco – two meaty shanks prepared just like the real veal thing. They were served over a black-eyed pea pistou with some arugula stirred in. Get it? Italy meets the South and Provence.
Wayne's entree was blackened wahoo with three blackened shrimp over jambalaya and spinach. I'm not usually too fond of Prudhomme-esque blackening, but Stewart has a deft hand with the spices, avoiding the gut-wrenching acidity of amateurs. The jambalaya (available as a side dish) was just as good.
You can nibble on deviled eggs, fried pickles and hush puppies before your entree or order more substantial appetizers. I heartily recommend the lamb tartare, whose minced meat is combined with roasted eggplant and house-made yogurt. It's served with crispy papadam dribbled with a very peppery harissa aioli. Presentation ain't real pretty, but taste is addictive. Wayne's starter was seared sushi-grade tuna, seasoned with the classic Japanese seven spices, served with cucumber-sesame salad.
For dessert, we took a chance and ordered fried Oreos with vanilla ice cream. I didn't expect to like them, but I could easily eat a dozen without batting an eye.
Editor's Note: Chef Ryan Stewart is the husband of CL Food Editor Besha Rodell. Bostock did not know of the connection when he wrote this review, and Rodell did not edit it. See our Omnivore blog for more details on how we dealt with this potential conflict of interest.