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Meet and eat

Commune is fun, electric, affordable and tasty

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I'll never get the New Year's Eve thing right. Last year, Wayne and I spent it under the Eiffel Tower after an enormous meal of Alsatian food. It was freezing cold and raining, and people were hurling champagne bottles through the air and turning over cars. The year before that, I had people over for a reveillon dinner and insisted everyone recite a poem. Our guest, Lisa, and I impassionedly read Rilke, and when we looked up, most of the table was cross-eyed.

"Never again," Wayne declared after both cases. So this year, we decided to stay in town, have an early dinner and return home in time to watch Dick Clark's wrinkles grow deeper. Our choice for dinner was the new Commune (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-609-5000). I'm sure you've already heard about this place. It's destined to be among the trendiest in town, so you'll understand why I, as you should, plundered my closet for all things black -- a color that does not flatter the blond but makes us feel very hip in a Nordic undertaker sort of way. Wayne wore black with a yellow tie, opting for the Mafioso look.

Commune is located in the same development as Bacchanalia, Taqueria del Sol and Mondo -- all culinary leaders in our city, in terms of menu and design. Commune, sister to Chelsea, Celebrity Chef Matthew Kenney's hot spot in New York, fits the area well. Kenney is rather like a junior Wolfgang Puck. He has opened a handful of successful restaurants in New York besides Commune, including Mezze, Matthew's and Canteen, and another in Portland, Maine. He also markets a line of cooking products. I'm telling you this so you don't have the delusion that Commune, whose guiding metaphor is an endless table where strangers can mix and mingle over good food, isn't a market-driven, corporate experience. Celebrity name behind it or not, Commune will not compete with the fabulously kinky likes of Seeger's or Joel.

Like Puck's more recent venues, Commune is fun, affordable, electric and tasty. There's an upstairs bar with a skyline view, and the main dining room is a dazzling play of red light and black surfaces, mirrors and varnished wood. It almost feels like an old-style nightclub. I'd love to see a pair of red-dressed tango dancers kick the plates off the long table and put on a show.

Don't worry: You aren't required to sit at the communal table. We took our seats at a red-topped table and immediately renewed our annual New Year's resolutions. Wayne resolves that people will treat him nicer. I resolve that people will treat me with more respect. We like these resolutions because everyone but us breaks them.

Soon after seating, we were set upon by obviously well-trained service people dressed in black like stagehands or puppeteers, popping in and out of the darkness to set a knife or glass on the table, to take away a plate or leave a stone-cold roll.

Yes, the bread needs to be warmed and that's about the only bad thing I have to say about my New Year's Eve dinner at Commune. The menu of New American cuisine is one over-sized page with 12 starters and 10 entrees, along with a handful of side dishes. (The reverse side of the menu features a huge wine list.)

I ordered the most expensive appetizer -- a portabella mushroom cap grilled and topped with a very generous serving of seared foie gras ($14). A salad of warmed baby spinach leaves was nestled about the mushroom and the entire plate was drizzled with deeply redolent truffle oil. I couldn't have been happier. I warn you, though: If you don't like the smell of truffle oil, you're going to have difficulty at Commune. It is also used in a popular side of mac and cheese ($7) and the odor wafts continually around the dining room. It's a nice stimulant before a meal, but not so pleasant with dessert.

Wayne selected a starter of a pizza with figs, prosciutto and blue cheese ($8). It was plenty for two, simple and full of pleasant contrasts, like the slightly sweet and chewy figs against the sharp and unctuous cheese, on a pie just shy of crispness.

Other appetizers include pumpkin soup with duck confit and ginger-braised leeks ($8), seared beef carpaccio with arugula salad and reggiano cheese ($12), and curried tuna tartare with radishes ($10).

For my entree, I had probably the best osso buco I've ever encountered in our city ($22). It was a ridiculously large portion -- more than I could eat -- very lightly seasoned with orange zest and thyme, served over white beans garnished with deliciously marinated dried tomatoes. The veal shank was nicely browned, and -- oh happy day -- loaded with marrow that I spread on bread and mixed into the beans.

Wayne ordered grilled salmon topped with chanterelles and arugula -- a marvelous combination ($18). The plate was drizzled with an arugula-based coulis that tasted a bit like wheatgrass. There's also roasted duck with carrots and lime ($18), roasted chicken with sage and walnut butter ($16), mussels with French fries ($15), lamb loin with goat cheese and saffron cous cous ($23), and scallops in lemon grass ($22).

Portions are enormous -- especially if you add a side of mac and cheese or braised flat beans or crispy polenta fries -- so dessert is a struggle. We did it for you, though, both of us opting for chocolate. Wayne ordered chocolate pudding cake with vanilla ice cream ($7), which very much resembles upstairs neighbor Bacchanalia's famous Valrhona chocolate cake. I ordered the German chocolate cake ($7) -- an interesting version that I'd like a lot better without its heavy fudge top, which I left behind on an otherwise polished plate.

I like Commune. It's not terribly creative -- every expected ingredient of New American cooking is featured -- but it is terribly well executed. Let me hear your comments.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at

404-688-5623, ext. 1504.

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