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Lindbergh lunch

Visits to Hot Stix, Tin Drum and Il Bacio

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Wherever you are in Atlanta, there's something like Atlantic Station nearby. These mixed-use developments all look essentially the same, like a cluster of toy buildings you might assemble next to your model train track. Personally, I find them all creepy, with their faux small-town look and maze of streets lined with usually mediocre restaurants and shops.

And who can keep the damn names straight? Lindbergh Plaza and Lindbergh City Center sit virtually across from one another on Piedmont Road near – surprise – Lindbergh Avenue. The City Center one adjoins the MARTA station on the west side of Piedmont while the Plaza's on the east side. The latter was once home to a shopping center by the same name that long catered to Hispanics who occupied countless inexpensive apartments in neighboring areas.

Both hideous developments are packed with informal restaurants. I visited three recently: Hot Stix Stir-Fry Kitchen (Lindbergh City Center, 570 Main St., 404-844-2000), Tin Drum Asia Cafe (Lindbergh Plaza, 2561 Piedmont Road, 404-846-8689) and Il Bacio (Lindbergh Plaza, 2571 Piedmont Road, 404-467-0333). That's two quicky Asian cafes and one Italian trattoria.

Hot Stix is probably the most intriguing of the three, partly because it's new to the city and partly because the look of the place is striking – not to mention that the food is a good bit better than I expected.

You get an eyeful as soon as you enter. The open grill is opposite the entrance and almost looks like a stage. We visited on a Sunday and found the place packed with members of a social group from Christ the King Cathedral. We ran into these folks at Lola a few months back. I love seeing young Christians knock back cocktails and attack an all-you-can-eat buffet. Catholics rock!

Like the Real Chow Baby, Hot Stix offers a buffet of fresh ingredients that diners pile into bowls, then turn over to the kitchen to stir-fry on a 700-degree grill. You get two bowls. The larger is for your selection of rice, noodles, vegetables, five-spiced tofu, eggs, condiments and your choice of a zillion sauces. A smaller bowl is for your protein – shrimp, steak, chicken, pork, sausage and a seafood salad of octopus, squid and faux crab.

You can return as often as you want and that's a good thing, because you might create a mix that you regret. My first go-through, for example, I seasoned my bowl with some dried red chilies, some chili powder, some chili sauce and – why not? – some chili oil. It was actually tasty but way too hot, I'm sure, for all but the most devoted chili head.

What is most striking here is the integrity of the ingredients when they are returned cooked to your table. The superhot grill cooks in a flash, so nothing loses its natural flavors or juices. For this reason, you do not need to use a heavy dose of sauce that will obscure flavors.

The restaurant also offers some appetizers that make great bar snacks if you just stop by to drink. I ordered the Chinese-style buns stuffed with barbecued pork and, honestly, they were better than the average I've pulled off dim sum carts.

My friend Brad and I lunched across the street at Tin Drum last week. This is the third location of the cafe that began life in Midtown's Technology Square. It's a pan-Asian menu and, for the money, you won't find better.

I love the cafe's "drumrolls" – roti bread wrapped around various fillings. My fave is the tempura shrimp with avocado and tomato, served with a honey-miso dip. Brad ordered the masaman curry made with tofu, a huge portion served with rice. The tofu was deliciously crispy and creamy, and the sauce was as good as you find in most Thai restaurants in town.

My own entree, pad Thai, was unfortunately as disappointing as it was the first time I ate it in the original restaurant. The noodles are still way gooey, and the chicken and bean sprouts too sparse. And, unlike most versions, there were no shrimp. (You can add them, though.) I have to admit that in my original review I complained that the sauce had no sweet notes. Now it tastes too sweet. Perhaps you should try it yourself.

This place, like the original, features a graphic of the Tin Drum album that inspired the restaurant's name. The original graphic included an image of Mao Tse Tung, but he's been bleeped from the cafe's rendering. Poor ol' Mao.

Just across the sidewalk from Tin Drum is Il Bacio. The restaurant has been opened by a family that owns two restaurants in New York. Nothing gives you a better sense of what to expect than the music you hear on its website: "When the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza-pie, that's amore ..."

Yep, it's New York-style Italian and, honestly, it's not bad, either. I haven't had a good plate of manicotti in a long time and Il Bacio's was great. The pasta, stuffed with ricotta, was delicate and melted in the mouth. It was topped with melted mozzarella that had not turned to Silly Putty like most versions in town, and the tomato sauce was fresh and light.

We also ordered pizza, a kind of strange one featuring lots of fresh avocado and arugula, with black olives and cubes of mozzarella. The cheese, unfortunately, did taste a bit vulcanized but the thin-crusted pizza was otherwise a novel treat.

An order of bruschetta needed more olive oil and better tomatoes, but the dessert, tiramisu, was surprisingly good. This is a dessert most restaurants ruin, but Il Bacio's has the right blend of sweet and bitter flavors and creamy and foamy textures. And it's a huge serving. Hurrah!

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