A couple decades ago, I ate at a restaurant that completely changed its decor every month or so. It was in the SoHo area of New York City and, as I recall, that month's decor featured tables inside tents made of chiffonlike fabric illuminated by colored lights. It sounds like "Invasion of the Tutus" but it worked.
About the closest our city has ever gotten to a continually changing, artisan decor is the long-defunct original Virginia's in Virginia-Highland. The owners were continually finessing the interior with tile work, paint and lighting. It was as much a stage as a café, and I still miss it.
I visited two restaurants last week – 4th & Swift and Bone Garden Cantina – whose interiors, while certainly not handmade, are striking in their deviation from the norm.
4th & Swift (621 North Ave., 678-904-0160) is located in the former engine room of the Southern Dairies. While there are echoes of Kevin Rathbun's restaurants here, I find the management of this large space by the design firm of ai3 wonderfully moody. Some picturesque fixtures from the original tenant, such as a huge red valve (or something), are left intact, as are structural elements, including the aged walls and beams. White tablecloths and sparkling crystal help disperse the low lighting.
The restaurant had started its "soft opening" only a few days earlier when I visited. It was nearly empty, so the interior's effect was probably heightened by the solitude, but the restaurant really does feel to me like the post-industrial setting for a film of the future. As much as I love the look, I do have to marvel at owner/chef Jay Swift's ambitious choice to open such a huge dining room.
Swift, formerly of South City Kitchen, calls his cuisine "seasonal comfort food." For now there's a one-page summer menu that's augmented by another page of specials. We had a good meal of dishes that, like the interior itself, were postmodern riffs on the familiar.
A good example was a starter of Georgia white shrimp escabeche. The shrimp were served on one end of a rectangular plate, and a mound of roasted cauliflower, sun-dried tomatoes, slices of cured olives and capers occupied the opposite end. While there's no doubt the utterly delicious shrimp are the dish's figurative centerpiece, the choice to separate out the escabeche's other ingredients allows the diner to play with flavors.
Likewise, my entree, called "Three Little Pigs," was a witty riff on pork. It featured a slice of amazingly tender, medium-rare pork loin, along with a succulent chunk of pork belly and a cluster of sliced, homemade sausage. I wasn't that impressed with the macaroni and cheese with which it came, but the dish was otherwise delicious.
Another starter, braised lamb shoulder between layers of lasagna pasta with wild mushrooms and hand-dipped ricotta, was more classic in its presentation and refined in its study of textures: supple pasta, al-dente mushrooms, tender shredded lamb.
The best dish we sampled was the wood-grilled Cape Hatteras swordfish loin. The fish was served with fried calamari and a salad of shaved fennel. A classic rouille was also on the plate. I thought the calamari might turn out to be excessive but its light, melt-in-the mouth texture worked well with the swordfish.
For dessert we ordered an "ice cream sandwich" featuring passion-fruit ice cream between layers of coconut-macadamia shortbread. Like many of the dishes here, it was a large portion – too large for one diner, I think, but you go ahead and try to eat one alone.
The service was great.
I was excited when I heard that the Vortex folks had opened a new Mexican spot, Bone Garden Cantina (1425 Ellsworth Industrial Blvd., 404-418-9072) in the Westside area. The decor features huge pieces of artwork inspired by the weird, funny images used in Mexico to celebrate the Day of the Dead. Skeletons party and taunt diners, reminding us that we're all players in an absurd drama that ends the same for all of us.
The menu, mercifully, is not an endless list of plates like it is in most Mexican restaurants. Instead, you get to mix and match tacos, enchiladas, sopes, quesadillas and burritos with soups and side dishes of your choice.
I'd heard many raves about the pozole, a traditional soup served on weekends in taquerias all over the city. This version is "white," made with chicken instead of the usual hog's head. Unfortunately, the cup I ordered was so salty, it was nearly inedible. I found oversalted food in both my visits to the cafe.
My favorite dish so far has been the chicken mole. Here, it's a leg and thigh covered in a dark mole with all the appropriate layers of flavor, including a garnish of toasted pumpkin seeds. It's probably a sign of the Atlanta palate that servers ask if the dish's corn tortillas are acceptable instead of flour ones.
I've sampled tacos made with barbacoa (and too much cabbage), blackened tilapia and carne asada. I've also ordered an enchilada stuffed with brisket, topped with tomatillo sauce; a sope with roasted pork; and a tamale stuffed with shredded pork. Most of these have been mediocre. Comparisons to nearby Taqueria del Sol are inevitable. The brisket enchilada does compare favorably to the latter's, but the fish taco's sautéed tilapia will make you miss del Sol's fried fish.
I also tried an order of elote, corn on the cob lathered in mayo and queso fresco. It was tasty enough but is a far cry from Sala's version.
I'm told the entire kitchen staff at Bone Garden is Mexican. If that's so, I'm mystified that the food doesn't have more sparkle and heat. I'm going to assume that's the result of concessions to the Tex-Mex Atlanta palate.
Still, the inexpensive restaurant is a great place to hang out, drink, eat a few tacos and enjoy imagining riding a motorcycle when you're dead. I think the owners should rent the space out for wakes.