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Slim pickings

Year's favorite newcomers are few but fine examples of memorable meals

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Maybe the interminable election campaign had something to do with it. Or interest rates. Or the weather. Whatever the reason, 2000 was a thin year for restaurant openings in metro Atlanta.

Sure, with our insatiable appetite for novelty, we went, we saw and we dined. But was anybody satisfied by the fresh feasts spread before us? Or just stuffed? Despite a forkful of exceptions, the millennial cusp-year was a bummer, a snooze, nothing like the pre-Olympics glory years.

Still, the exceptions deserve recognition. Taking cuisine, value, ambience and service into account, 10 establishments, the best new restaurants I've reviewed this year, are worth remembering.

Note that this alphabetical list is followed by a wrap-up of last year's contenders and how they fared, plus a tip of the hat to the folks who help make these weekly reports possible.

Top 10

Antica Posta, 519 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-262-7112.

Brothers Alessandro and Marco Betti, who took over the former Riviera this year, serve superb Tuscan specialties at moderate prices. A slice of oven-seared red snapper with aromatic vegetables was the best fish plate served to me. Asparagus risotto with grated cheese and scallops on a bed of crushed chickpeas with extra virgin olive oil and rosemary sprigs was equally memorable. Service and comforts are first-rate. This is a special-occasion destination as well as a place to enjoy the kind of Italian food served in Italy, not New York.

Aria, 490 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-5208.

Chef Gerry Klaskala’s all-American, slow-cooked repertoire is as hearty as it is wide-ranging. Look for delectable specialties such as beef short ribs on mashed potatoes, roast organic chicken, pan-roasted Alaskan halibut, white bean soup, seared sea scallops and grilled meats. Kathryn King’s dreamy desserts (Valrhona chocolate cream tart, raisin-nut cake with caramel sauce) help compensate for up-up-up-market prices and the half-baked decor at the much-rehabbed former Hedgerose Heights.

Bistros, 1529 Piedmont Ave., at Monroe, 404-879-1090.

Rhoads Fearn and Francois Hugon’s bifurcated bistro menu features side-by-side French and American selections printed on facing pages. The point? Beats me. Whatever the language, several of Fearn’s up-to-date dishes are worth the post-fusion fluster. Look for salade d’epinards et foies de volaille (spinach salad with sensational sauteed chicken livers and caramelized onions), entrecôte béarnaise (a dainty New York strip with a light, luscious sauce), rack of lamb with winter vegetables and a gorgeous risotto enhanced by chanterelle mushrooms, asparagus tips, shaved cheese and truffle oil. Counting the elegant surroundings (in the former Ciboulette) and moderate prices, this is a great venue for menu experimentation.

Cabernet, 5575 Windward Pkwy., Alpharetta, 770-777-5955.

The aged beef is USDA prime and cooked exactly as ordered. The crab cakes contain sweet lump meat, not filler. The cold, crisp Caesar salad with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano is a model of its kind. Valet parkers trot. Computerized reservations are made and kept. Waiters whisper soothingly. Salt levels approach those of the Dead Sea. Wine prices are expense-account hefty. If you can handle all that, say hello to a suburban steak house that really works.

Eno, 800 Peachtree St., at 5th St., 404-685-3191.

Conceived as a stylish, comfy laboratory in which food and drink pairings may be explored, Doug Strickland and Jamie Adams’ Mediterranean bistro offers seasonal, albeit notably saline Cal-Italian cuisine. Dishes to watch for: fennel-leek soup with scallops, shrimp and croutons; fried oysters surrounding a mound of angel hair pasta tossed with parsley, lemon, black pepper and extra virgin olive oil; grilled quail on a salad of sorrel, arugula and romaine lettuce, pancetta and caramelized orange sections with Marsala-pomegranate dressing; pan-roasted black bass with olive oil, Mediterranean black olives and fennel; and a traditionally spiced Umbrian pear tart. Menus suggest wines for almost everything. Service varies from slow to friendly. The crowd is Midtown hot.

Fritti, 311 N. Highland Ave., 404-880-9559.

Riccardo Ullio’s younger, hipper, much handsomer sibling to next-door Sotto Sotto offers sensational fried stuff (potato-cheese croquettes, mushrooms, seafood), shareable salads and an a array of thin-crusted, rustic pizzas that vary radically in quality and interest. Atmosphere, service, wine list and the stylishly rehabbed industrial building are all notable.

Kong Lang, Orient Center, 4897 Buford Hwy., Suite 125, Chamblee, 770-986-9168.

The Cantonese barbecue-and-seafood specialist hidden in the far corner of a newish Chambodia shopping center looks as generic as fortune cookies. The god of authenticity is in the details. Where else can broth-filled Singapore dumplings be found? Or real lacquered pig with a properly crispy, teak-colored skin, thin layer of subcutaneous fat and moist, sweet, rose-tinged flesh? Yes, it’s possible to find other versions of fruity, black bean dessert soup and sauteed water spinach in garlic, hot pepper and bean sauce. But the substitutes are far less delicious than those at Kong Lang. Service and amenities nearly match the delectable cuisine.

McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant, 600 Ashwood Pkwy., 770-399-9900.

The best of the year’s catch of big-deal fish houses, this lavish chain-link offers fresh seafood in a variety of preparation styles. The emphasis is on fish and recipes of the Northwest and Pacific Coast: Parmesan-crusted, sauteed Oregon petrale sole, pan-fried oysters with creamy tartar sauce and grilled Maine salmon with Northwest berry coulis. Despite a fortune in glass domes, privacy booths, snappy linens, heavy flatware and 30 to 40 varieties of seafood offered daily, prices are moderate. Culinary throwaways and details (bread, salads, a tendency to overcook fish) betray mass-market aspirations.

Noodle, 205 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-378-8622.

A good choice for families and office workers in downtown Decatur, this moderately priced noodle bar turns out tasty, colorful appetizers, noodle bowls, soups, rice plates and entree salads, all more or less Chinese, Korean, Thai or Vietnamese in derivation and presentation. Seasonal vegetables, fresh aromatic herbs and near authentic spice levels add points. Lack of convenient parking subtracts them. Oversized crockery, a decent wine and beer list and touchy-feely industrial decor (exposed galvanized conduit writhing like dragons, ventilation ducts painted sky blue, mosaic- and tile-topped tables with blond bentwood chairs) emphasize the distance Asian-American restaurants have traveled recently — from mainland to mainstream.

Shingaar Palace, N. Hill Plaza, 3364-H Chamblee-Tucker Road, Chamblee, 770-458-4466.

Offering what may be the city’s best combination of authentic Indian food, agreeable service and elegant, albeit Colonial-style comforts, this shopping-center Taj near I-285 sets new local standards for South Asian dining. Appetizers (mashed potato cakes laced with cottage cheese and spinach, charcoal-grilled chicken drumsticks), vegetables (spiced eggplant) and curries (the Goan fish stew is notable) make the tea room-style establishment particularly worth seeking out.

Last year’s notables

Four (Cafe Boheme, Cipollini, Holyfield’s New South Grill and Insignia) expired well before the end of 2000. The other six continue in operation. They are: Park 75, San Francisco Wraps, Sotto Sotto, the Swallow at the Hollow, Tierra and Watershed.

Finally, I want to give thanks to my frequent dining companions, the indefatigable folks who eat more than their share of mediocre to bad meals in the service of truth, justice and the American way of restaurant reviewing. They are: George the Curmudgeon, the Buckhead Couple, Ivan, Mary Ann, Ramon, Steve R, Steve H, Barney, Hugh and the late Harry Hannah III.

Elliott Mackle is accessible for readers who want to rave, swoon and cheer about great restaurants new and old.

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