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Spend or save

You still have to eat, no matter how the economy is doing

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Are you confused? The government is telling us to spend, spend, spend to re-stimulate the economy. Meanwhile, companies are laying off thousands of workers and stocks continue to slide.

Suddenly, a restaurant meal -- long considered a convenience among boom-time workers -- looks like a luxury. I'm sure you're aware that high-end restaurants here and around the country are reducing prices and adding more affordable dishes. We look for the day when Seeger's, which actually has inaugurated a less expensive prix-fixe menu, begins issuing punch cards that grant diners their 10th meal free.

Nonetheless, a recent visit to Bacchanalia (1198 Howell Mill Road, 404-365-0410) turned up only one sign that boom times may be evaporating. The menu lacks the extravagant caviar service, for which one paid a hefty premium on top of the $58 prix fixe. The cost was a painful but sweet sacrifice. I whined. Brad raged. Will rolled his eyes at us. Michael and Todd smiled sweetly. Sheila murmured.

Otherwise, our meal was good, though we encountered a few surprising disappointments. Brad, for example, disliked his snails with herb butter. The bland, rather grassy-tasting sauce was not as appealing as the usual garlic-infused butter. Moreover, we found a peculiar failure to adequately salt some dishes, such as the lentils under the sauteed turbot. No, I'm not fond of salt, so it's quite a departure for me to find something undersalted. The turbot, too, was not at its prime.

There, my complaints end. The standout starter -- maybe the best dish, period -- was the veal sweetbreads over collard greens. The best entree was the woodgrilled tenderloin. Best third course was the cheese (for a $10 supplement) and the most interesting of those was an Arkansas Gouda made from raw goat's milk.

The best dessert continues to be the signature warm Valrhona chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, but sheer over-exposure led me to select the coconut semifreddo with braised pineapple and citrus sorbet instead. Why didn't I try the pumpkin bread pudding with Parmesan ice cream instead?

Bacchanalia is still well worth its $58 cost (though drinks will drive the price up rapidly).

Cheap thrills
Remember last week when I complained about the lack of atmospheric cafes in Atlanta? Shoot me. Then pay a visit to Five Sisters Cafe (2743 Lavista Road, Decatur, 404-636-6060). I'd be there with my laptop every day if it weren't so far from my home.

The name of the cafe does not refer to a collective of mythological Furies or Muses, but to a literal group of five sisters with a wonderful eye for color and talent for hospitality. Though located in yet another strip shopping center, Five Sisters announces itself with a purple, shaded terrace full of plants. Inside, red and green walls are hung with paintings and photos. The ceiling is festooned with colored glass orbs. Candelabra drip colored streams of wax. You eat at a pub table or curl up on the sofa. There's a cozy bar dispensing teas and coffee drinks.

I feel I should confess that my nephew Carlton does the cooking here on the weekends. Trained in my brother's restaurant on St. Simon's, he's a college student and future rock star. Actually, "cooking" is not exactly the right word for what he's doing at Five Sisters, since the menu is almost entirely salads and sandwiches, owing to a very limited kitchen. That is to say, there is no stove.

Nevertheless, there is one soup and an entree special on the weekends -- a good onion soup and pasta with roasted red pepper sauce the evening of my visit with my friend Tommy Brown.

Sandwiches range from roasted eggplant with goat cheese and smoked salmon with horseradish-creme fraîche and capers to crab salad on foccacia and roasted turkey. Salads feature the same broad range of ingredients. Dessert can be an unfortunately dry "very moist carrot cake" or a (much better and moister) fudge chocolate layer cake. There's also pound cake and banana nut bread. Carlton probably does not know that his grandmother, my mother, went through periods when she baked more pound cakes than Sara Lee.

Coffee, from Batdorf & Bronson roasters, is excellent and cheap. A great hang-out.

Here and there
Feel unsafe? Visit Daddy D'z in Grant Park. I stopped by for barbecue the other evening and found myself amid 12 policemen. I did not get arrested. ... I'm looking forward to visiting Joel, which opened last week. The chef/owner, Joel Antunes, was executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead and his departure to open his own restaurant emulates the path of Guenter Seeger. We hear, by the way, that Seeger is spending a lot of time in San Francisco these days. Don't leave us, Guenter!

Wisteria, featuring Southern-inspired cuisine, has opened in the old Babette's Cafe location on North Highland.

Steve Allen wrote last week to complain about my description of a waitress in a "Church of God hairdo." A member of that denomination, he wrote to demand an explanation. I wrote back that when I edited newspapers in rural Georgia, I often heard this expression to describe a woman with a lot of hair piled up on her head. It was inspired, I was told, by the Church of God's rule that women should not cut their hair. The correspondent shot back an e-mail informing me that it's the Church of God of Prophecy that has that rule, whereas the Church of God only discourages the wearing of makeup and pants.

I regret the error. Writing is difficult business.

Call Cliff Bostock's voice mail, 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.

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