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Rare: Soul tapas on Piedmont

Restaurant is deft, defying fun to sample

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Holy crap! A few weeks ago I complained about the lack of boutique restaurants in our city. I've carped about predictable corporate-style decor. And I've whined regularly about how tapas have overtaken our dining scene.

Then along comes Rare (554 Piedmont Ave., 404-541-0665) to defy all three concerns. Opened by the same folks who operate Harlem Bar on Edgewood Avenue, Rare is a gorgeous, eccentrically decorated space with the feel of a private club and a menu of -- are you ready? -- delicious soul-food tapas. Yes, yet another new Southern restaurant and certainly among the best.

I love it.

Wayne and I visited on a Monday night and, unfortunately for us, the restaurant was hosting a private party for 100 and we could not get a seat in the main dining room. So we ate in a cozy cafe room opposite the bar. The room lacks the drama of the main dining room with its soaring brick walls. But a view of the bar's fancy, almost retro crystal chandeliers more than compensated. This is the best this space, home to earlier failed restaurants, has ever looked.

There's an interesting twist that may take some diners by surprise. The restaurant's decor includes occasional pieces of retro kitsch, some of it arguably racist. The restaurant is operated by African-Americans, so the items take on a campy but disquieting feel in their evocation of the not-so-recent past. They recall Marlon Riggs' amazing film Ethnic Notions, made about such depictions in the mid-1980s.

The crowd Monday night was dressed to the nines. Perhaps things are less formal when a private party is not underway, but I have a feeling you'll get a fashion education here no matter when you go. Beware the hotness; I've never seen so many good-looking people under one roof.

I'll dispense right away with my only complaint about the restaurant: a sound system that blasted music at ear-splitting volume now and then, startling us. Wayne, formerly the nicest person alive, warned the maitre d' (who has movie-star looks) that if the restaurant doesn't "get a handle on the music, it will not survive."

Uh, right. I think that's a slight exaggeration, since he was the only person complaining, and the problem was remedied, anyway, when a DJ took over, playing really good music, as he does every Monday night.

Executive chef Anthony Sanders' menu is lengthy, creative and witty. All plates, designed for two, cost $5 to $7. If you are not a professional eater, you'll do fine with three plates per person, so you don't have to drop the fortune tapas menus usually end up costing.

Our favorite dish was Hoppin' John, here prepared with shrimp and scallions. The usual rice and black-eyed peas were bound with a creamy sauce and spiked with hot peppers. Buffalo-style chicken livers -- spicy, creamy and topped with two big onion rings -- were also remarkable.

You'll laugh at the notion of pot stickers stuffed with collard greens, ginger and wild mushrooms, served with "pot liquor" for dipping. Ours, unfortunately, had broken open but the taste was wonderful. Another dish features a small waffle, anointed with maple syrup and topped with a crispy chicken wing.

Shrimp and grits with turkey sausage is dressed up with goat cheese. Steak-and-crawfish pot pie is a stew that includes sweet corn and is topped with a triangle of crispy pastry. The one dish we didn't much care for was the "lobster macaroni," which was way too salty and served tepid. Its white-cheddar bechamel hid any hint of lobster.

For dessert, pick the warm, chocolate bread pudding with fudge sauce and cinnamon-spiked whipped cream. You'll happily say bye-bye to Valrhona chocolate cake. The peach cobbler is, as tradition requires, sweet enough to make your teeth hurt. I'd like more pastry.

Service at the restaurant is great. The staff is informal, sharp-looking like everything else here and well-educated about the menu. Go immediately.

Here and there

After printing a reader's inquiry for the best gyros in town, I've posted several replies in recent columns. I suspect a conspiracy, but this week I received five e-mails promoting Nick's Food to Go (240 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, 404-521-2220).

The quirky little takeout shop, open since 1994, is less than a mile from my house, catty-corner to Daddy D'z, so I gave the gyro a try last week. You have your choice of lamb, beef or pork. I tried the lamb, along with fries and a Greek salad. I found it yummy but not distinguishable from most gyros I've sampled in town. The salad was iceberg lettuce with some crumbled feta, two olives and a lone pepperoncini.

I have ordered and enjoyed Nick's pastas and Greek classics such as spanakopita, pastitisio and baked chicken (available as a special Tuesday and Wednesday). Spaghetti with a Greek-style meat sauce ain't bad, either. Prices are absurdly low. ...

A new fast-food joint featuring Vietnamese and Thai cuisine is opening soon on Piedmont near Cheshire Bridge. ... The fun 57th Fighter Group restaurant at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport has closed, as has the strange Zaria in Vinings. The latter has converted to an Atlanta Bread Company. ...

A popular Thai restaurant has been looking fruitlessly for a location to open in Grant Park. If you have an idea, drop me an e-mail and I'll let them know. ...

I was pleased months ago to read that Scott Peacock of Watershed shares my enthusiasm for Popeyes fried chicken. But this week, I read this by Camille Paglia, who has resumed her column for the online magazine Salon:

"On to pop culture: Anna Nicole Smith. I heard the first bulletins about her death on the car radio as I was driving home from campus last week. At the Popeyes drive-through (where I was ordering Cajun wings), I blurted in agitation to the window lady, 'Anna Nicole Smith just dropped dead -- tell everyone!' -- which she promptly did. The staff inside (all African-American) were startled and incredulous."

I'm not sure what their race has to do with the story, but, hey, Camille's a lesbian. Just making a point!

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