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Choose Your Own Adventure

Building a better stir-fry at the west side's Real Chow Baby

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Some years ago, I reviewed a restaurant in the Buckhead area whose popularity completely bamboozled me. It was a steak house with a gimmick: You grilled your own steak. The only function this served, as far as I could tell, was to make a first date less awkward by supplying an activity. Of course, if your steak sucked, you had nobody to blame but yourself, so that armored the restaurant against dining critics.

The Real Chow Baby (1016 Howell Mill Road, 404-815-4900) poses a similar situation. The gimmick here is that diners concoct their own stir-fry dishes. You get in a line - usually a long line - and fill a bowl with noodles or rice and vegetables. You season this bowl with your choice of nearly 40 sauces. In a separate bowl, you place a protein - such as beef, calamari, chicken, salmon or tofu - and season it to your taste. You turn your bowl over to the cooks who throw it on "the hottest grill in the Southeast." You return to your seat and your stir-fry is delivered much sooner than you expect.

This busy new restaurant in an apartment building in the burgeoning west side has "trendy" written all over it. That's not to suggest it's a frivolous undertaking. The owner is Mike Blum, who last worked as general manager of Spice, and before that was with Fratelli de Napoli. He was also with Liberty House Restaurants, which owns Bones and the Blue Ridge Grill. So, the place is pedigreed. The chef is Damian Stento, who has an interesting resume that includes the Ritz-Carlton downtown and the New Yorker Deli.

Only a curmudgeon could totally hate Chow Baby. I have several friends who loathed it their first visit, then ended up becoming regulars and now love it. I think I know why. I am curmudgeon enough that I don't like loitering in line and watching people construct dishes with obviously repulsive combinations of sauces. And yet there is something akin to conducting a culinary science experiment in this. After one visit of producing a tasty dish and a mediocre one on a second visit, I felt myself in the grip of a compulsion to return. I've just got to find the right mix! I know I can do it! I just need to cut back on the ginger and cayenne and ignore the Thai cilantro sauce this trip.

Really, it's at least as much fun as my chemistry set used to be. And the restaurant fully exploits that. If you don't like what you made, you can ditch it and start over. In fact, you can return as many times as you want in a single visit, developing ever stranger - or prosaic - dishes.

Because you're in charge, it's difficult to make an honest estimate of the food's quality except by taking ingredients separately. The veggies are all fresh and I loaded down with asparagus each visit. Noodles and rice get no complaint. But as you move to the sauces, things do get a bit chancier. I've found many of the sauces oily and bland - something you won't realize until your dish has been cooked, when it's too late to adjust the seasoning.

The best protein I've sampled has been the calamari. The crab was a nightmare. I presume it's that fake stuff because the super-hot grill reduced it to a pink skin without even the body of tofu. Chicken tasted OK. The beef was gamy tasting. You should only use it in a strongly seasoned dish. The cooking itself is primo. I've been quite surprised that, apart from the crab, everything I've eaten has maintained its integrity.

I do suggest you skip the appetizers, which don't require getting in the cattle line but are otherwise pointless in an all-you-can-concoct-and-eat restaurant. Little potato pancakes were hot and crunchy but I detested the apple-scallion cream sauce. Do not order the "lettuce cups," which are not cups at all. It's a small plate of withered, seasoned chicken and some Boston lettuce to wrap it. The best dessert is two hot brownies sandwiching some vanilla ice cream - plenty for two unless you're eating with me. A mango sorbet should be returned to its maker.

The service is terrific. It's energetic and friendly from the moment you enter the door. I'm unsure whether I was recognized, but we were given our desserts free with the explanation that they appreciate repeat customers.

Here and agonizing there

OK, I've come to the conclusion that I could wear a bag over my head and I'd still be tormented by employees at cheap restaurants. My favorite hamburger joint remains Ann's Snack Shop on Memorial Drive, but in three visits, I've not managed to get my hands on a burger. Two times, Miss Ann locked the door as she saw me getting out of my car. Although she says she closes at 7:45 p.m., the time seems to vary - namely according to my presence in the parking lot.

Last week, we were sure to get there by 7 p.m., took a seat at the bar and Miss Ann said, "I hope you don't want a hamburger because I don't have any. I won't buy from a grocery store and the warehouse was out today."

And then there's Rolling Bones. I love this high-tech barbecue joint on Edgewood Avenue. But, man, the service has deteriorated. The employees often behave like decapitated chickens, running about and spinning in space. How about a mild sauce seasoned with Xanax?

And, yes, because I am like the Little Moron, who banged himself over the head with a hammer because it felt so good when it was over, I continue to hit Popeye's at Ponce and Boulevard. I had this exchange last week after I ordered chicken, and I'm not kidding:

Counter clerk with hairdo from hell: "Spicy or mild?"

Me: "Spicy."

CCWHFH: "We out of spicy."

Me: "OK, mild is fine."

CCWHFH: "We don't have any of that, either."

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

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