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First Look: Serpas

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"May I see your ID?" our server, Jason, asked.

Wayne and I looked at one another, incredulous. "Are you kidding?" I asked. We were paying for our meal – not buying alcohol – and in more than 20 years of reviewing restaurants and paying with a credit card, I've never been asked for my ID.

Jason grimaced and said, no, he wasn't kidding. We handed him our IDs and he studied them closely, comparing them to our credit cards. Then he announced that all was well. Yay! We got to pay for our meals and we didn't have to go to jail!

We were at the newly opened Serpas (659 Auburn Ave., 404-688-0040) in the mixed-use Studioplex in the Old Fourth Ward, which has become a favorite location for new restaurants. This may be the most ambitious undertaking in the neighborhood so far.

The restaurant is another rescued warehouse space, with lots of old brick and dramatic lighting. May Architecture and Interiors create a soothing orange, chocolate and celery color scheme. The restaurant has several focal points. One is the bar where antique bottles are bathed in orange light. It adjoins a completely open kitchen. There's a very orange supersized mural of cotton blossoms that recalls the building's original use as a cotton storage facility. All in all, it's a very comfortable space.

The restaurant takes its name from owner/chef Scott Serpas, who's well known to Atlanta foodies. He got his start in New Orleans restaurants. After a stint with Kevin Rathbun at Baby Routh's in Dallas, he came to Atlanta to become sous chef at Nava, then executive chef at Sia's and Mitra. Most recently he headed the kitchen at Two Urban Licks.

Serpas calls his cuisine "true food," by which he appears to be suggesting so-called comfort food with a kick. It features Southwestern, Asian and Louisiana accents but so far doesn't approach weirdness in any respect.

I started, at Jason's recommendation, with crispy duck rolls, basically thin-skinned egg rolls filled with juicy duck flavored with classic five-spice seasoning and served over a chili oil. Wayne picked the more interesting dish – Texas Crab Toast. Imagine thick toast points impersonating a crab cake anointed with chipotle-spiked aioli. Serpas isn't stingy with the crab, so it was unexpectedly more substantial than many crab cakes around town.

Other starters include eggplant hushpuppies, a wild mushroom tostada (which I've heard raves about), a tower of onion rings encasing Caesar salad, and flash-fried oysters with pickled chilies and mirlitons.

Entrees are all straightforward with minor kinky flourishes, from roasted chicken and jumbo sea scallops to a burger and barbecued Scottish salmon. Wayne picked the boneless beef short rib, a ubiquitous dish but served here with a garnish of horseradish cottage cheese. Frankly, I found the cottage cheese unpleasant, but I admit I associate the stuff with dieting. I used to eat it – gag – blended with tuna fish. The short rib itself was the usual slow-cooked tastiness and was accompanied by a cast-iron pan full of cheese-scallion potatoes. (I wish I had tried another side, the cream collard greens.)

I ordered an interesting dish of ravioli stuffed with navy beans in a rich and delicious shellfish butter, topped with three large Gulf shrimp. The latter were the best shrimp I've tasted in quite a while. The ravioli were pleasantly disconcerting. The texture of the navy-bean filling reminded me of butternut squash, especially with the shellfish butter's orange-red color.

Desserts continued the comfort-food theme. A fried apple pie with vanilla ice cream didn't excite me at all, but white-chocolate bread pudding with dried cranberries and a heap of whipped cream was pure pleasure.

We dined at Serpas only a few days after it opened and found it humming with unusual smoothness for a new restaurant. One of the servers told me that nobody on staff has worked less than five years in restaurants. Prices are reasonable, with most starters under $10 and big enough to share. Entrees are mainly under $20.

Just be sure to carry your ID with you or your server might slap you around.

HERE AND THERE

As mentioned above, Serpas' menu includes a burger – a fairly conventional one with smoked cheddar and red wine dressing. Our Cheap Eats writer, Jennifer Zyman, has been documenting the Godzilla-like takeover of our dining scene by the not-so-cheap gourmet burger, so it's no surprise to see one on Serpas' menu.

As I reported on our blog, Omnivore Atlanta, a reader turned me onto a "burger" at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q that features chopped brisket on a huge bun with jalapeno mayo, crispy bacon and melted pimento cheese.

Having been a brisket fanatic since my years in Houston, I found the creation unbelievably yummy and quite witty in its excess – a parody (intended or not) of the outré burgers, like Flip's, that have become the latest fad.

Fox Bros. is doing a booming business by all appearances, and I was surprised to see some interesting specials on a chalkboard menu. ...

I've been experimenting by buying cheese on sale at Whole Foods on Ponce de Leon Avenue during the last month or so. I've run into some real bargains, including a farm gouda, a Jarlsberg and Parrano all at about half the usual price. I also picked up some super-cheap but irresistible Snofrisk – a spreadable, mainly unripened goat cheese.

What's particularly surprised me is that Whole Foods' everyday prices generally seem to be below those at the Ansley Kroger's new fancy gourmet section.

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