This time last year, Atlanta was buzzing with excitement about the openings of Trois and Shaun's. If you think about all the places that have opened since then, those two restaurants almost seem like old favorites. There have been some sad losses this year, and some great revivals. Some restaurants came and went so quickly, they never even had a chance to make it on this list. If Richard Blais' experiment had lasted — of turning Midtown's Element from a bland tapas spot into a "food lab and gastro lounge" — the restaurant certainly would have been among my favorites for the year. But luckily, most of the great new spots did last, and there's plenty of buzz to go around. Here are our five favorites, in alphabetical order:
Beleza is still a work in progress – only three months after opening, the restaurant already is on its second chef (Ken Bouche), and the menu has undergone some changes since our review in October. But there's an underlying aesthetic at Beleza that is both literally and figuratively refreshing, the idea that food can be good for you and delicious. The menu is still focused on whole grains paired with unexpected flavors and textures, and simply accented raw fish crudos (in a smart move, they got rid of the sous-vide fish). The wall of living, breathing plants gives a lush, sexy feel to the place that is wholly in keeping with the organic theme. And the cocktail menu is probably the best in the city.
905 Juniper St. 678-904-4582. www.frittirestaurant.com/beleza.
KEVIN RATHBUN STEAK
Kevin Rathbun has done a fantastic job of taking the boys-club feel out of the steakhouse while retaining a business-friendly vibe and fabulous, manly meats. Modernized classic sides, such as the creamed corn with roasted jalapeños, bring out the best in Rathbun's style of cooking, but what impresses me the most is the care taken with the nonsteaky parts of the menu. Seafood entrees and desserts both show as much care as the coddled meats. The lovely patio, which overlooks the kudzu-draped railway tracks, is so urban as well as Southern that it could only be here in Atlanta.
154 Krog St. 404-524-5600. www.kevinrathbunsteak.com.
A city can never have enough glistening, perfect, beautifully fresh sushi, and the Kinjo brothers have delivered again with this sequel to Midtown's MF Sushi. Apart from the pristine fish (flown in from Tokyo), it's worth a visit just for the glamorous but somehow intimate space in the Terminus building, accented by the hottest waitresses in town. Also check out the area's first serious robata grill.
3280 Peachtree St. 404-841-1192. www.mfbuckhead.com.
It was a sad day when Tamarind closed in 2006, leaving Atlanta without some of its best Thai food. But the consequence of that closing was the opening of Tamarind Seed, and the city is richer as a result. The gorgeous Johnson Studio design, which incorporates Thai artifacts, serves as a perfect backdrop for chef Nan Niyomkul's rich, complex curries and bold-flavored entrees. I have yet to encounter anything on the regular or specials menu that wasn't stunning.
1197 Peachtree St. 404-873-4888. www.tamarindseed.com.
In a recent conversation, my friend, the wonderful AJC food columnist John Kessler, came up with the term "flexivore" for the eater who wants to dine flexibly, free from the constraints of the formal appetizer-entree-dessert restaurant experience. That's what Top Flr is all about: the option to dine however you please, casually or more formally, early or late. The quirky, funky vibe here is a lot of fun, and chef Micke Schorn's flexible menu is packed with fresh flavors. Desserts by Taria Camerino can be offbeat or thoughtful and precise, and sometimes both. The bar is one of the most comfortable hipster hangouts in the city. Flexivores rejoice!
674 Myrtle St. 404-685-3110.