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Osteria 832: Vegan hippie chicks unite

The Poncey-Highland restaurant turns a veal-free 4 years old

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Pity Jay Botwinick. The accountant and former New Yorker is forever combing Atlanta in an effort to reclaim his culinary roots. It used to be a real delicatessen he couldn't find. Lately, it's been an Italian spot with a "real red sauce."

Jay left me a voice mail last week complaining about Osteria 832 (832 N. Highland Ave., 404-897-1414). The Virginia-Highland restaurant turns 4 years old this month and Jay used to eat there a good bit. But, he sputtered on the phone, "They no longer serve veal ... I heard some vegan hippie chicks who work there talked them into taking it off the menu. I've quit going."

Damn those vegan hippie chicks. More than 15 years ago, after mentioning how much I liked the veal at a restaurant, I awoke to find my yard decorated with posters illustrating the horrific way in which veal calves are raised. I could not eat veal for 10 years. I finally resumed, but I still feel like stabbing my fork in my eye when I do.

Veal or not, I decided it was time to return to Osteria 832 to see how the popular restaurant was doing. I had my usual olfactory flashbacks, smelling Downy and Tide, on entering the sparely decorated space. Years ago, when the neighborhood was cheap and boho, this was a laundromat I visited weekly.

Osteria's food is not perfect – yes, there are better red sauces in town – but you cannot eat here without appreciating the value. Sitting on the patio on a balmy spring evening, we ate well, enjoyed attentive service and wished the restaurant were located someplace where finding a parking space isn't an urban safari.

For starters, we shared an antipasto misto and an arugula salad. At $8, the antipasto platter was gigantic, featuring prosciutto, salami, olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, fava beans, two types of cheese and some pasta. In short, it was a meal. The arugula, fresh and peppery, was coated in olive oil and lemon, tossed with some shaved Parmesan.

We sampled three entrees. I worried when I saw the pan-seared trout arrive on one of those plates that had been visited by a manic lover of garnishes. As flawed as the confetti-strewn presentation was, the trout, seasoned with rosemary and olive oil, was as fresh-tasting and well-cooked as any I've had at any mountain lodge.

A little less satisfying was a smoked prosciutto pizza. Osteria uses a thin, almost crackery crust I like very much. The white pie featured mozzarella and taleggio besides generous prosciutto and was drizzled here and there with a sweet balsamic vinegar reduction. My complaint? It was too dry. I remedied the problem with a light sprinkling of olive oil.

Pasta dishes are rich and, unlike Jay, I have no complaints about the red sauces. But then, I didn't grow up eating New York-style Italian cooking. My favorite is the spaghetti with puttanesca sauce – red with olives, capers and pecorino romano.

For dessert, we shared a small serving of decent but unremarkable tiramisu.

Osteria 832 is proof that an intown restaurant can still serve good food that is affordable and – sorry, Jay – politically correct.

Trader Joe's arrives

Everyone's been eagerly anticipating the opening of Trader Joe's (931 Monroe Dr., 404-815-9210) at Midtown Promenade. Friends in Los Angeles, where the grocery chain is based, have been singing its praises for years. But I'd never been in one until the store's opening here a couple of weeks ago.

My first reaction was not terribly positive. I squeezed baguettes that seemed too soft. I was annoyed that the produce was all prepackaged so that I couldn't sniff it or touch it. Most of the refrigerated meals looked unappetizing to me. It all had the feel of a convenience store – which is exactly what the original stores were.

However, I quickly came to realize the appeal of the place as I was checking out. Ca-ching! I was buying organic produce and eggs, prepared foods and my usual huge quota of protein bars – and the cost was shockingly low. It was just the opposite of my experience at Whole Foods, where they hand you a tiny bag and a receipt that totals a quarter of your week's income.

But wait. There's more. Despite the unattractive packaging, the food was actually good. I fetched two types of ravioli – gorgonzola and fire-roasted veggies – from the prepared-meals section (total of $6) and eight decent Roma tomatoes ($2.49) which I turned into a sauce with some olive oil. The ravioli – really enough for three people – were surprisingly good. They certainly aren't comparable to the ravioli that Elisa Gambino makes and markets through Whole Foods, but I've had far worse.

A large bag of bright-green organic arugula was only $2.49.

I also sampled two varieties of hummus, one flavored with kalamata olives, the other with chipotle peppers. Skip the latter and buy two of the former, which is highly addictive. Pita bread was dirt-cheap but crumbly; buy crackers.

I bought a Key lime cheesecake, plenty for four, which was a bit too creamy for my taste but better than Sara Lee.

The total for all of this, not including my protein bars, was just more than $22. Amazing.

Here and there

Speaking of hummus, you can skip the stuff at Milltown Arms Tavern in Cabbagetown. It is mealy and virtually flavorless. And that's too bad because I like the pub's burgers, and it's the only place I can order tater tots without feeling ridiculous. ...

There's bad news in Grant Park. Hank's Ice Cream is losing its lease in June. I hope it finds another location in the neighborhood because nobody else deserves it. ...

Keep an eye out for Omnivore Atlanta. That's the name of the new dining and food blog that editor Besha Rodell and I are debuting next week.

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