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Hood in flux

Little Five Points gets some serious dining with Bang

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We've got new hipness running out our ears these days in Atlanta. From the phallocentric Spice to the retro Cherry, intowners are parading themselves on some culinary runways. (I'll be reviewing Cherry, where one expects Ru Paul to come stylin' down the staircase, next week.)

A bit less self-consciously trendy than either Spice or Cherry is the new Bang (1126 Euclid Ave., 404-223-5039). It's located in Little Five Points in the former location of Baker's Cafe and, as such, offers some serious dining in the neighborhood for the first time since Geneva Francais pulled the African Brown Bag out of that landscape of pierced Dunwoody refugees and scabbed-knee skateboarders. The hood is in transition, for sure. Every time I pass the new Starbucks there I shudder. It's a reminder of how bogus "alternative culture" often is.

Bang isn't bogus. It's been opened by two longtime employees of Alix Kenagy's Partners and Indigo (now closed). Larry Ammons and Richard Madonia are clearly carrying on Kenagy's spirit. Even the restaurant's self description, "a Little Five Points community bistro," recalls Partners' "a Morningside bistro." The interior, too, is a bit Partners-esque with minimalist decor and soothing colors -- a nice antidote to the front window's view of commercialized surrealism.

The crowd is a pleasant mix of black-clad air-kissers and young people. The owners work the room much like Kenagy used to, making everyone feel pampered. Their chef, Joey Bridgers, is also a Partners alumnus who recently worked at Asher, one of suburban Atlanta's better restaurants.

Generally, after one visit, I like the food, though I think it needs some tweaking here and there.

Wayne started his meal with slices of tuna cured in pastrami spices ($6.95). I didn't much like the sound of it, but I found the lip-stinging flavors -- especially paired with a very good slaw and a homemade mustard -- irresistible. In fact, I liked it far more than my own starter, spiced lamb carpaccio ($6.95). I found nothing spicy about the lamb. In fact, the meat had very little flavor. The Israeli couscous with which it was served did not taste sufficiently vibrant, having as well a rather lugubrious texture where something cleaner was called for. It's a nice idea that doesn't work very well.

I couldn't resist the entrée of marinated flank steak with fries ($15.95). It was cooked just right, served -- ooh la la -- with buttery red wine sauce. Frankly the potatoes need a bit of work to cure them of limpness, but it's otherwise a quick transit to Paris. My one more serious complaint is the very heavy use of garlic. I've heard this tendency manifests itself in several dishes here.

To their credit and the delight of Birkenstock-shod oldtimers in the area, the restaurant features several vegetarian entrees such as vegetable lasagna and polenta triangles with mushroom ragout and ratatouille. Wayne ordered a vegan pasta special -- fettucine mainly flavored by organic greens and a tomato marmalade that was sweet for my taste ($12.95). I hope you're getting the point. Dishes are well prepared and designed, but it's as if the kitchen goes a bit far here and there -- too much sweetness, too much garlic. A bit of restraint alone would move the food to a higher level.

Other meat entrees include a cassoulet, grilled snapper, fennel-crusted pork loin, grilled duck breast with wild mushroom pancakes and "mahogany chicken." Prices range from $13.50 to $18.95.

We ordered bread pudding for dessert ($4.95). Although I liked its addition of some fruit, I didn't care much for the texture -- smooth throughout. I like my bread pudding a bit lumpy, alternating custardy mouthfuls with chewy caramelized ones. But I know that Bang's version is the one found most around town these days.

My initial verdict: A really pleasant neighborhood restaurant to which I'll certainly return. The food has great potential but definitely needs tweaking.

Here and there

To say goodbye to my friend David Lantrip, who has moved to Houston, I took him to Zocalo for lunch recently on a Saturday. Clearly, the owners of this restaurant next to Nickiemoto's in Midtown have put their main energies into their upscale restaurant, Oh Maria! in Buckhead. Maybe I hit it on a bad day but I found the food lackluster. I also object to paying $60 for lunch on a Saturday afternoon. Why was only a dinner menu available?

We started with queso fundido ($7.25) that was served tepid, so that the cheese had the texture of Silly Putty. Making tacos with the tasty rajas and (literally cool) chorizo was almost impossible without dicing the cheese. The black bean cakes ($6.95) were likewise cool with a very grim texture.

I still love the restaurant's mole dishes, but, the shredded chicken breast in my crepas de mole blanco ($12.95) was so dry I suffered flashbacks to a time I judged a cooking contest in which half the dishes were made with canned USDA surplus chicken. David's chicken mole ($10.50) was a better choice but likewise was served mysteriously underheated. Cooking. It takes heat.

Que pasa?....

Meanwhile, Mambo in Morningside has debuted a new menu. Though I'm not happy that the masitas de puerco have been eliminated, there are some delicious additions, like vaca frita and a seafood soup. The arroz negro, which the restaurant calls "music turned into food," remains on the menu. Squid cooked in its own ink with rice, the dish is one of those I only let myself eat about once a year in order to preserve my adoration of it.

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