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The dawn of new Morningside dining

Early visits to freshly minted Food 101 and Pizza Vino

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Remember when Morningside was hip? The neighborhood could have been the cradle of metrosexuality, it was so touchy-feely and stylish 15 years ago. Alix Kenagy, a former fashion writer and editor of Creative Loafing, presided over the hood's sensibility with her two side-by-side restaurants -- the campy, rococo Indigo Coastal Grill and the svelte Partners. Across the street, Lucy Alvarez and Hilton Joseph served nouveau-Cuban fare at Mambo.

Indigo and Partners both closed almost 10 years ago. Since then, the space has been home to one failure after another. It's something of a mystery, since at least one of the restaurants was better than average. By the time Mambo closed last year, the Partners-Indigo space had been vacant for quite a few months and the once-festive sidewalks were no longer full of cocktail-swilling folks waiting for tables. "It's all about baby carriages now," Joseph told me just before Mambo closed. Indeed, a hip clothing store for kids has opened across from the still prospering Alon's there. The metrosexuals are all daddies and mamas now.

But things have recently improved for diners in the area. Food 101 (1397 N. Highland Ave., 404-347-9747) has opened in the old Partners-Indigo space, and Pizza Vino (1402 N. Highland Ave., 404-745-9334) has opened in Mambo's space.

This is the city's second Food 101. The original on Roswell Road has been a longtime favorite of Sandy Springs diners. The new restaurant is by far the best looking ever to occupy the Partners-Indigo space. Like the original Food 101, the look is somewhat swank and somewhat casual. The brick-walled main dining room is lined with banquettes, and there are three large semi-circular booths cozy enough to impart back-to-the-womb comfort. A second dining room, partitioned from the front one, is more conventional. And behind it is a private dining room where a gaggle of women were laughing their heads off during my visit. Nearly half the space has been devoted to the bar, which adjoins the completely open kitchen.

What else? Green tea-colored walls, a bleached-wood floor, black and white photography and fragrant lavender sprigs in the tables' bud vases. The restaurant had only been open a week when I visited and the staff was still wandering about in that hypnotized fashion common in new restaurants. But our servers were attentive and at least two of them, both female, looked like they should be walking runways in Milan.

The menu is identical to that of the Sandy Springs location. Its self-description is "American classics, neighborhood twist." Depending on how you feel about Sandy Springs, it will be good or bad news that Morningside gets the same "twist."

Our food was mainly good. I'll immediately dispense with my one serious complaint: The she-crab soup, which Wayne ordered, was way too sweet, and while it had a generous quantity of lump crab meat, I didn't encounter any roe in my few spoonfuls.

My own starter featured four plump, oversized shrimp with some sweet, creamy grits. Most of the bowl was devoted to a chunky San Marzano tomato sauce with diced andouille sausage. Personally, I'd rather have more grits and fewer tomatoes, but I'd order the dish again.

I've enjoyed the pot roast entree at the original restaurant but decided to order the braised lamb shank last week. Yabba dabba do! This was the biggest shank I've ever been served -- big enough to give Fred Flintstone's worst enemy a concussion. The taste? Succulent meat and not too much fat. A sauce of white beans in pan juices, with bits of sun-dried tomatoes and chunks of artichoke hearts, was a bit retro and more than a bit salty. I've never fully recovered from my childhood love of mint jelly with lamb, so I would have liked a shot of sweetness. But overall, I enjoyed the dish.

Wayne ordered broiled baby flounder washed in saffron broth, served over braised leeks, sweet peppers and tender edamame. Veggies of this type are typical of all the entrees on Food 101's menu and are really what provide the "twist" on dishes that are otherwise straightforward classics.

For dessert, we shared chocolate bread pudding. It was something of a disappointment because the server called it "white chocolate bread pudding." It turned out she was misreading her own notes; the dish was made with ordinary chocolate.

If Food 101's menu suits the neighborhood's more conservative yearning for comfort food these days, Pizza Vino is a more informal option with some exotic choices. The restaurant's owner/cook Steve Masri also owns Olive Bistro (whose Little Five Points location has closed, while the Ponce de Leon restaurant remains open). He has included some of Olive Bistro's Middle Eastern dishes at the new restaurant in addition to experimenting with pizzas.

Masri is a native of Sardinia who grew up in Israel. So there is nothing contrived about his menu of Mediterranean dishes that range from hummus and moussaka to pizzas. We've eaten frequently at Olive Bistro, so we were most interested in trying the pizzas. You can choose a personal or large size, red or white, and select ingredients that range from the ordinary to the more exotic, like gorgonzola, gyro meat or lamb.

While the personal pizzas feature a somewhat thick crust, the large pies are thin, almost crackery. We topped a white pie (made with garlic and olive oil) with gorgonzola, lamb and sun-dried tomatoes. We also sampled a tomato-basil soup and a fat slice of baklava.

Everything was delicious, although I do have one complaint about Masri's food: Most of it is infused with so much garlic that I typically can't eat it unless I'm planning to spend the remainder of the day alone. I'm not urging him to change his style, but it would be nice if there were more dishes on his menus that didn't require self-imposed quarantine after eating.

Meanwhile, his hummus and baba ghanoush remain the city's best, and the new pizzas are a welcome addition.

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