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Vino handles Mediterranean with care

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Tucked into a corner of the perpetually congested Peach shopping center, just a runaway cart away from a Publix supermarket, is a gem of a restaurant, a tiny place packing a big visual punch and an even bigger wallop on the palate.

The menu at Vino! Restaurant and Wine Bar is Mediterranean, a cuisine in short supply here. It is as authentic as possible, considering only locally obtained ingredients are used. But even bona fide chorizo sausage and Spanish saffron would be useless if the kitchen did not so obviously put so much time into the food.

One would expect that of a restaurant owned by Ophelia Santos. You may recall that she opened the espresso bar Il Centro in Phipps Plaza a decade ago, before the specialty coffee craze spread south and Starbucks hit town like a hurricane. Once espresso was everywhere, Santos turned

Il Centro into a small boutique for wine accouterments and assorted porcelain, then closed it altogether in favor of Vino.

Santos' love of contemporary design and color infuses Vino with a style that is playful and elegant at the same time. Armchairs with claw feet, a traditional design if ever there was one, are freshened by an antique white finish. Colorful murals balance cool tile floors, and off-white crocheted half-curtains at the windows make the odd angles of interior feel cozy. Vivid blue tablecloths peek out from crisp white toppers, setting off the eye-catching patterns of the brightly colored bowls and plates.

Really, though, it is the food that pulls the design together. Or, to be more precise, the food will rivet your attention to the point that you no longer notice he surroundings.

First come tapas in their small bowls, each combination more interesting and savory than the next: marinated mixed olives, sauteed mushrooms in sherry, balsamic braised radicchio with bacon and fontini, baked ratatouille, seared chorizo with roasted peppers, fresh anchovy filets on ciabatta toast, roasted garlic and goat cheese crostini, garlic saffron shrimp, Catalan tomato bread with Serrano ham, and the traditional Spanish tapa, mixed fire-roasted nuts.

In addition to these, listed regularly on the menu, there will be a tapa on the daily tasting menu. Each item on the dinner menu is available a la carte as well, which

is how I came to savor the stupendous

roasted shrimp with gazpacho vinaigrette on a recent evening. I was exceedingly sorry that I had offered the second of the pair of shrimp to my guest. The sweet shrimp meat was notable in itself. To have the peppery vinaigrette burst in the mouth at the same time was startling.

It is possible -- and entirely acceptable -- to make a meal of these tantalizing nibbles, particularly when accompanied with Vino's chewy, tangy bread. But you don't want to miss such a tour de force as the Tuscan white bean soup. This is the product of hours and hours of careful simmering, and that care shows in every spoonful.

Diligence with details shines in every dish. Light and tender potato gnocchi baked on a bed of fresh tomato sauce is enlivened by parmesan and seasoned bread crumbs. Veal tortellini gets a double-barreled accent: wild mushroom sauce and seasonal wild mushrooms. Seafood Provencal -- a conglomeration of shrimp, scallops and mussels over cappelini -- is perfumed by white wine, garlic and tomato. Rich, velvety lobster ravioli bathes in saffron sauce along with carrots, leeks and aromatic roasted tomatoes.

Simpler preparations are equally as effective. Nicoise olives and herbs de Provence, for example, are excellent foils for tuna, pan-seared to accent its freshness. Similarly, a pan-roasted breast of chicken practically melts into the buttered cabbage with which it is paired. Roasting deepens the flavor of lamb chops enough to support the rosemary crust and mustard demi-glaze.

You also must try the Paella Valenciani, buttery-soft calamari and shrimp, chicken, chorizo, clams and mussels decoratively arranged on a mountain of tender saffron rice.

Lunch at Vino is not quite so ambitious -- a necessity, I suppose. Along with a handful of sandwiches -- including crab and shrimp salad on a croissant and roasted vegetable -- there is a risotto each day. If you want a preview of the blend of excellent technique and quality ingredients that makes the kitchen sing at night, this is the thing to order.

As its wine-inspired name suggests, Vino has an extensive and varied wine list, including French, Italian, Spanish, Californian, South African and smatterings of other countries' outputs. These are thoughtfully chosen and not grossly marked up. That Vino takes wine seriously is obvious by its ambitious schedule of wine dinners, offered monthly. But for my money, the way to go is the $9.50 flight of three wines -- a decent taste of each, Vino's choice -- specially chosen for the nightly menu offerings. A dollar from each flight's purchase is donated to the Atlanta Ballet. As a way to feel very, very good about oneself, this combination cannot be topped.

amy.jinknerlloyd@creativeloafing.com

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