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Italian summer at La Tavola's Tomatofeast

Plus a visit to LeRoy's Fried Chicken

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This week, we take a look at the old and the new. One, on the expensive side, makes me nostalgic for the good old days when we could use our homes as ATMs to finance fine dining. The other, somewhat expensive fast food, makes me nostalgic for the days when we could pay for wings with the coins fished out of our car seats.

Let's start with the good. I don't visit La Tavola (992 Virginia Ave., 404-873-5430) more than once or twice a year and every time I do I end up asking myself why I don't come here more often. Executive chef Craig Richards worked five years for the queen of Italian-American cooking, Lidia Bastianich. He's been at La Tavola since 2005 and continues to produce a compelling menu.

Recently, July 27-Aug. 6, the restaurant hosted its annual Tomatofeast with a menu of 12 tomatoey dishes. Wayne and I have tried this a couple of times before and enjoyed it. This time, like last time, we were seated at the gloomy window table. Eating there, in the otherwise convivial restaurant, feels a little like being forced to eat in your room after pitching a fit at the adults' dinner table. Worse, our server seemed to forget about us entirely at times.

It must exhaust Richards to produce this three-course menu, available for $35, each year. He does give himself the freedom not to make the tomato the central ingredient. Thus my plate of squid ink trenette featured an almost unnoticeable amount of chopped tomato and basil. I can't say the dish was a complete success. Bits of buffalo mozzarella were half buried in the pasta but added nothing to the flavor at all.

Wayne's entrée, grilled house-made fennel sausage, was the better dish. Links of the sausage were served on the rim of a bowl full of Sapelo Island clams, roasted peppers and tomatoes. Grilled polenta provided a sop for the juices.

My favorite dish was a starter of poached Georgia shrimp with avocado, tomatoes, Calabrian chilies and — wow — a salsa verde made of Thai basil. For a change, the shrimp, the best tasting I've encountered in a while, weren't dependent on the rest of the dish's ingredients for flavor. The chilies provided an occasional fiery blast, easily cooled by the creamy avocados.

Wayne can't resist watermelon and tomato salads, so that's what he ordered. These were Brandywines, a pointedly acidic tomato that is perfect for sweet watermelon. Aged balsamic underscored the counterpoint while arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano added more intensity.

Unfortunately, we landed on an evening when the restaurant had run out of the basil panna cotta with tomato-caramel sauce and crispy tomato skins. We had to settle for tiramisù. Poor us.

Weird on the Westside

Julia LeRoy is a fabulous chef. Trained by Guenter Seeger, she became well known for her cooking at the Bookhouse Pub, especially her "Locavore Monday" meals of sourced Southern cooking.

She left Bookhouse last year to consult with other restaurants. The rumor was that she planned to open a small Southern restaurant. Like so many dreams, that one seems to have been compromised. She has instead teamed up with the folks who own Fellini's Pizza and La Fonda to open a fried-chicken take-out joint on the Westside called LeRoy's Fried Chicken (1021 Howell Mill Road, 404-872-7888).

I was excited to try it. I'd already forgiven the place for its name. I think we all know that "Julia's Fried Chicken" would not have the same note of, um, authenticity "LeRoy's" does. But, first of all, the prices shocked me. Yes, LeRoy is using birds from Springer Mountain Farms, so, OK, I can live with $5.95 for two pieces. But where is a real combo plate? By the time you add two sides ($2.50 each), a beverage ($1.75 or $2.50) and a biscuit (75 cents), you've spent quite a bit.

The good news is that LeRoy fries the chicken to order in lard, like Scott Peacock did at Watershed for years. She argues, correctly, that the rendered pig fat is healthier than most cooking oils. It also adds better flavor. The breasts are huge, meaty, succulent. But the coating is weird. No, it doesn't need to be as absurdly thick and crisp as Popeyes' chicken, but it is extra-thin, falls too easily off the meat and doesn't have a helluva lot of flavor.

This may be fully intentional. Maybe LeRoy wants to highlight the better-than-usual flesh and not add extra calories. But what about the sides? I know for certain that she can make better mac and cheese than this totally ordinary stuff. The collards aren't bad, but don't plan to eat them without a substantial shot of vinegar.

LeRoy's has only three high-top tables out front. I had no competition for one, even in the 90-degree coolness of the evening. I think the place could do well with the addition of combo plates (and I mean with real sides, not a biscuit and a drink). I was also surprised that there were no desserts available when I visited. Julia LeRoy is, after all, a skilled pastry chef, too.

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