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New Year's in the Lobby

Playing catch-up with Bob Amick

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Alright, already! We get the point, Bob Amick. You are the man, the king of culinarians, a magnate amid wannabes. Your touch is magic. Yeah, you own this town.

Honestly, were I not old enough that I'd seen Bob Amick and his partners take over Atlanta's culinary scene in the '70s with their Peasant Restaurant group, I might feel less like I am reliving my past every time I go into one of his new restaurants. I can't even name all of them -- Piebar, One Midtown Kitchen, Two Urban Licks, etc. -- but they all share the trendy status that the Peasant restaurants also had in my medieval youth.

I quit trying to keep up with the new Amick ventures a year ago when Lobby at Twelve (361 17th St., 404-961-7370) opened. The restaurant is literally in the lobby of the swank Twelve Hotel and Residences in hideous Atlantic Station. Yes, I said "hideous." I'll never get used to a development that looks like it was manufactured to accompany a model train.

That's not to say Lobby's interior isn't attractive. It departs from most of Amick's other projects by being understated. It looks a lot like a hotel lobby restaurant. You enter by passing a dramatic circular bar backed by a wood-burning oven where pizzas are cooked. But, there, the drama ceases. The main dining room is coppery, gold and dim, with big booths. A long bar fronts the kitchen and connects to a second dining room.

Wayne and I ate there on New Year's night, which happened to be our fourteenth anniversary. The ambiance was almost too sedate for the happy occasion. OK, it was funereal and just right. Just kiddin'!

The executive chef here is the much-celebrated Nick Oltarsh, who last made his mark at Murphy's (which is also managed by Amick's consulting firm). Oltarsh worked at Gramercy Tavern in New York. That restaurant is also part of a popular group whose cuisine, not unlike that of Amick's restaurants, marries the nearly mundane with the esoteric. You'll find the same kind of approach at Lobby.

For example, a starter of chicken soup was afloat with tiny matzo balls -- and almost strangely flavored with watercress and a bit of truffle oil. It was a completely novel, earthy taste. Fried clams were served in a big mound garnished with crunchy haricots verts, some hot red pepper slices and a lemon emulsion. What's that unexpected taste? Ginger.

Generally, entrees seem less kinky. Then again, I haven't seen braised beef cheeks on too many menus around town. These were fork-tender and buttery from very long cooking, served over mashed potatoes with some baby carrots and a grating of fresh horseradish. Pat your cheeks and think "pot roast."

Wayne ordered sauteed salmon served over lentils with pickled cucumbers and beets. The vinegary bite was a welcome if not especially novel contrast to the strongly flavored fish.

The menu also includes a selection of pizzas, all available at lunchtime, too.

Desserts were less impressive. I ordered the brioche donuts, dusted with cinnamon and served with a soupy flan for dunking. Wayne selected the warm banana-chocolate truffle cake. Unfortunately, the restaurant was out of bananas, so he ordered it "banana-free." He loved it. It put me to sleep.

Service at the restaurant has produced complaints in the past. Our own server did not seem very educated about the menu and ran to the kitchen every time I asked about a dish's ingredients. I give her an A+ for enthusiasm and I give the restaurant a C for training.

Oh, by the way: Clean up the restrooms!

Here and there

My nephew Carlton, the vegetarian rock musician and chef turned special ed teacher who is moving to California with his tree-hugging girlfriend, joined us for dinner at Sotto Sotto recently. We had a great meal with him and two of his friends.

This remains my favorite Italian spot in the city. Part of what I like about the restaurant is its understated ambiance. That includes its exterior. Indeed, when I direct people to it, they almost routinely drive by without noticing it.

I am somewhat chagrined, therefore, by the appearance across the street of The Grape, whose purple neon sign seems completely at odds with the warehouse setting. Maybe it's just me ...

From Chris Moedjio: "It's funny you should mention the calorie content of Starbucks' blended drinks. When I lived in Athens, I would sit at the Starbucks downtown and just listen in amazement at what the sorority girls would order: 'Venti white chocolate mocha with whipped cream and caramel -- but could you make it with nonfat milk? Thanks a bunch!' I've read before that some drinks from Starbucks are the equivalent to a Big Mac in a blender. Don't get me wrong, Starbucks is my coffee shop of choice. Of course, I guess it all just depends on what you order." ...

Elisa Gambino is owner/chef of the fabulous Via Elisa, which produces the city's best pasta. She wrote this: "Thank you so much for supporting the NY ban on trans fats. The food industry must be held accountable for some of the health issues that are particular to our culture. Consumers are too trusting when it comes to food. We assume the best (until something bad happens) and question little."

Readers may recall that in my recent first visit to Shaun's I noted that a foam atop the ravioli looked disconcertingly like human saliva. Elisa remarks: "If the spit tastes good, and I am sure that Shaun's does, I am only too happy to see it on our ravioli and on the menu. I saved that 'Grazing' for posterity." ...

A recent dinner at Cantina La Casita in East Atlanta Village found the place packed but serving very mediocre food. Salsas and queso were so watery they would not cling to a chip. Wayne ordered a special of fried shrimp with a spicy tartar sauce. The shrimp tasted either cooked too long in advance or -- surely not -- out of a package. The highlight of the meal was my carnitas plate.

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