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Europe on the cheap

Finding bargains at Joel and Osteria del Figo

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Undoubtedly, I am the last critic in town to dine at Joel (3290 Northside Parkway, 404-233-3500). The breathless reviews of Joel Antunes' restaurant, like all such hype, froze me in my tracks. Antunes, who succeeded Guenter Seeger as chef of The Dining Room in the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead and then opened this restaurant about two years ago, is undoubtedly one of the city's finest chefs. But I mistrust all gods and generally prefer to dine among mortals.

However, when the gods cheapen themselves, I run to their temples. Joel is running a summertime special -- weekdays only -- of a three-course meal for $29. That is, to say the least, a bargain for a restaurant Esquire declared one of the 20 best new restaurants in the country last year.

Let me dispense with the most objectionable aspect of the restaurant -- namely its location in a ghastly development grandly called the Piazza at Paces, which also includes the Borghese building. Groan. Happily, there is no collection of Vegas-style reproductions of the statuary in Rome's Villa Borghese.

The 128-seat restaurant itself is another Johnson Studio project. Yeah, it's impressive, but chilly for a brasserie. I could go through the interior details -- the lighting, the red tile, the kinky curves of the booths, the wheatgrass on the bar -- but I want you to go to the bathroom and check out the sink. Woohoo! Approach the sink and automatically, with a flushing sound, warm water spills out of two metal chutes into a marble trough. I snapped my fingers hoping to make a toilet somewhere flush, but no such luck.

Wayne and I stuck to the summer menu, since it was my mission to check that out. I definitely recommend it, mainly because of the price, but I cannot rate most of what we ate as approaching the quality of my recent meal at Floataway Cafe. Perhaps there is some compromise of quality to produce this inexpensive menu.

A starter salad of beets, melon, cherry tomatoes and bulgur with argan oil was gorgeous. Most of the food here is served in stark white china and presentation is artful, mildly geometrical. My salad's cantaloupe was perfect but half the beets were on the mushy side and the tomatoes should never have made it to the bowl. No complaints about the bulgur in the center.

Wayne's salmon persille with creme fraîche and lemon dressing was flawless. Both dishes did exhibit an excessive fondness for micro-greens which you can't avoid anywhere in town these days. We also ordered, off the regular menu, a serving of a terrine of foie gras with fig compote. I want to die with foie gras in my mouth, but you know what? I don't want it to be cold.

Wayne's entree, boned roasted chicken with rhubarb and polenta, was the highlight of the meal. My own dish, caramelle pasta -- which I don't think I've encountered here before -- was stuffed with braised pork rib and served with some fresh bacon over a mild tasting but pretty lividly orange sweet-and-sour sauce that just couldn't quite find its meaning in life.

Dessert was a beer and apple tart with Heineken ice cream for me -- very stimulating -- and yogurt mousse topped with kiwi granite for Wayne. Pick the latter. It's the best excuse I've seen in a long time to revive the formerly fashionable kiwi.

Service, of course, is flawless. Six people with worried faces bring every dish to the table. Our main server, a refugee from Bacchanalia, was quite a comedian but, in order to preserve his job, I won't print his jokes.

Oseria del Figo opens

I should say at the very start, since I'm carping about bargains this week, that my three-course meal at the new Osteria del Figo (1210 Howell Mill Road, 440-351-3700) cost only a few dollars less than my meal at Joel. That's not meant to comment on Figo's prices -- they are cheap and I ordered the most expensive special -- but to reiterate the bargain that Joel is.

This is the long-awaited second location of Figo. The original restaurant, on Collier Road, is mainly a take-out shop with about 10 stools for eating in. This new location in the building vacated by Mondo, across the parking lot from Bacchanalia and Taqueria del Sol, has plenty of tables, though you still order at the cash register.

The place looks fab. The owners have turned what I always considered a pretty drab space into a cheerful dining room. There's a big outdoor patio. Get a seat by the windows if you dine inside. There are planters of herbs along the wall and you can -- well, you probably shouldn't -- pick rosemary or thyme to scatter on your bread with some olive oil.

The menu is the same as the other restaurant's, or at least basically so. The idea here is that you can mix and match your own pasta and sauce. If you are clueless, ask for help. Some pastas do better with particular sauces. You don't want to look like you belong at home with a can of SpaghettiOs, do you?

Among starters, the prosciutto with cantaloupe is the best choice in my opinion. It's a gigantic serving, plenty for two average diners, featuring high-quality ham wrapped loosely around ripe melon. I'm less happy with the fried ravioli stuffed with shrimp and halibut but I'd never refuse to eat it. It's a mite greasy but its spicy tomato sauce, with a heavy basil note, takes the edge off.

I ordered an entree special of (slightly under-cooked) egg fettuccine with a large fried soft-shell crab. The crab was crispy and flavorful but the pasta's "lobster bisque" sauce was completely overpowered by very sour cherry tomatoes. Wayne's choice of penne with the restaurant's smoked vodka-spiked salmon sauce full of fresh peas (one of my faves) was better -- and less than half the price.

For dessert, I ordered the restaurant's (huge) panna cotta. It's a very earthy version with a ricotta-like texture instead of the usual silky one. It was served with cooked strawberries and raspberries, which I'd rather have fresh.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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