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China doll

Gorgeous Mu Lan wows more with service and decor than food

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Mu Lan is one of the most visually alluring restaurants in town. It's housed in a restored Victorian on Juniper Street, but the place has an otherworldly quality to it. Coming in on a blustery and raw December night, I felt like I was stepping into a storybook.

From the foyer, a carved mahogany staircase curves upward. The bar is tucked underneath the stairs, a cozy spot for a pre-dinner cocktail if ever I saw one. Oriental elements, so often used with a heavy hand at Chinese restaurants, are artfully placed here. Imprints of bamboo accent the sand-colored walls. Chinese antiquities peer out from behind glass. Swags of shimmering fabric cover the windows. Two voluptuously elegant private dining rooms are visible to the main space through picture windows.

I wish I could say the food made an equally powerful impression. Several things we tried from the menu of Chinese specialties were overpoweringly sweet, and others just odd. A rule of thumb: If a dish ever comes with caveats from the server, don't order it. Grand Marnier prawns sounded enticing, but we should've taken note when the server asked if we liked mayonnaise. The prawns were coated in it like a sauce. If it had been on the side for dipping, I think it would've worked (though the actual taste of Grand Marnier seemed to be lacking). As it was, though, the lightly battered prawns were drowning in the stuff.

Tangerine beef was one for the "too sweet for its own good" files. Tender pieces of batter-fried beef were tossed in a spicy-sweet sauce flavored with orange zest. I wish it had been less cloying and more spicy. Initially intriguing, the dish just seemed to get sweeter and more one-dimensional with each bite I took.

Beijing-style dumplings were a much better choice. I have a deep love of dumplings of all varieties. Though the wrappers were a bit doughy, these plump, pan-seared beauties still wooed me with their gingery pork filling.

Besides the lavish decor, the restaurant also has great service going for it. Our server was one of those rare professionals who managed to do his job superbly and keep a sense of humor. That counts for a lot. I'm a firm believer that gorgeous surroundings and great service with so-so food can often make for a much more enjoyable dining experience than someplace cold and impersonal with exquisite cuisine ever could.

  florence.byrd@creativeloafing.com


New Year's planning

New Year's Eve is creeping up -- time to get on the stick and make plans. The following restaurants have something special going on. Make reservations early -- many will fill up quickly.

Ali-Oli in Buckhead hosts a five-course, prix-fixe dinner beginning at 9 p.m. The evening includes live music and bubbly at midnight ($85 per person). 3535 Peachtree Road. 404-266-0414. www.aliolirestaurant.com.

Aria plans a prix-fixe, four-course dinner 6-10 p.m. The dinner is $90 per person, or $130 with wine pairings. The restaurant also is open New Year's Day 6-10 p.m. 490 E. Paces Ferry Road. 404-233-7673. www.aria-atl.com.

The Cafe at East Andrews serves a five-course menu featuring delicacies like lobster, foie gras and filet mignon. $55 per person (wine pairings $20). Price includes a champagne toast and festivities at Andrews Upstairs. 56 E. Andrews Drive. 404-869-1132. www.eastandrews.com.

The Food Studio serves dinner 5:30 p.m.-midnight on New Year's Eve, offering a five-course meal for $85 per person, plus tax and gratuity. 887 W. Marietta St. 404-815-6677. www.thefoodstudio.com.

MidCity Cuisine offers a five-course menu with a champagne toast and live jazz for $85 per person, $130 with wine pairings. 1545 Peachtree St. 404-888-8700. www.midcitycuisine.com.

Pasta da Pulcinella dishes up a four-course dinner with wine pairings and a champagne toast. Two seatings at 6:30 and 9 p.m. $100 per couple, $55 per person (doesn't include tax or gratuity). 1123 Peachtree Walk. 404-876-1114.

Restaurant Eugene offers "An Evening with Julia," a three-course menu inspired by Julia Child. The first seating, from 5:30-7 p.m., is $75 per person. The second seating, from 7:30-9 p.m., is $100 per person. 2277 Peachtree Road. 404-355-0321. www.restauranteugene.com.

Seeger's offers two seatings on New Year's Eve. The first, at 5:30 p.m., features a four-course tasting menu for $85 per person (wine pairings an additional $60). At 9 p.m., seating features an eight-course tasting menu for $150 per person (wine pairings an additional $100). 111 W. Paces Ferry Road. 404-846-9779. www.seegers.com.

Spice hosts a dinner featuring seasonal favorites. The three-course menu is $50, and the four-course menu is $65. A credit card is required to hold a reservation. 793 Juniper St. 404-875-4242. www.spicerestaurant.com.

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