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Tricks of the Trader

Trader Vic's lovable kitsch isn't the only reason to visit

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Some things are so kitschy, so laden with sentimentality and nostalgia, that you have no choice but to love them. I love Trader Vic's in the Hilton Atlanta (255 Courtland St., 404-221-6339).

The "Polynesian" restaurant is marking its 30th year in business in Atlanta. It's part of a chain that, oddly, mainly operates in foreign cities like Dubai, Bangkok, Berlin and Cairo. Only seven of its 24 locations are in the United States, according to the menu.

Although most famous for founder Victor J. Bergeron's invention of the Mai Tai in 1944, a drink that he exported to Hawaii from his original restaurant in Oakland, Calif., Trader Vic's is also well-known for its cinematic ambiance. You'll see bamboo-covered walls and ceilings, tiki masks, batik wall covering, huge Chinese smokers in a glass room, wicker seating, fanciful carpet, a garden that includes a concrete fish gargling water, another garden, and a faux one behind the elevators, which take you to the bowels of the Hilton where the restaurant is located.

It could all be tacky as hell but it works wonderfully. You -- and the countless businessmen on expense accounts who fill the restaurant -- want to croon, "Bali hai ... bali hai."

The food is good. I confess this surprised me. I haven't eaten here in many years and do not remember having such good food. Of course, that was in my drinking years, and in all likelihood I knocked back a stupefying number of exotic rum-based beverages served in cartoonish glasses.

Wayne passed over drinks like the Suffering Bastard, the Zombie and the Queen's Park Swizzler to try a Samoan Fog Cutter, served in a porcelain vase decorated with a guy with a hot Samoan chick on each side of him. It is actually a detail from the drink menu's cover -- a piece of soft-core erotica that depicts the aphrodisiacal qualities of rum. I did not notice, by the way, that Wayne's usual mental fog was cut by his huge cocktail.

We ordered the Luau Dinner, which provides a good sampling of the restaurant's three main types of entrees -- curries, wok stir-fries and meats smoked in the Chinese wood-fire ovens. The dinner is also appealing because you get four courses for $40, a bargain in the fairly pricey restaurant.

We started with three "tidbits": smoked spareribs, fried prawns coated with rice noodles and crab rangoon, which is crab meat and cheese fried in a wonton. They were served with two sauces -- a fiery mustard and a cocktail sauce -- that frankly didn't complement them much. But each of the tidbits stood well enough on its own. The spareribs were especially tasty.

Next was a mixed green salad with "Javanese" dressing, a sweet concoction that tasted like a zillion "exotic" bottled dressings. But the restaurant gets props for using sparkling-fresh greens and not overdoing the dressing's quantity.

Entrees were the definite highlight. Our server wheeled them out on a cart and dished them to our plates. A thick filet of beef, from the Chinese oven, was tender and slightly smoky. (When I return, I'll be ordering the smoked rack of lamb that someone at a neighboring table raved about.)

Simple chicken stir-fried in a wok with crunchy snow peas and bok choy was as good as you'll get in the best Chinese restaurants in town. Its sauce was light and unobtrusive; none of that brown heavy, glutinous sauce you find in so much Americanized Chinese cooking. Finally, a sweet Thai-style curry with prawns, served with white rice, was a great contrast to the other flavors on the plate.

Dessert was an ordinary slice of cheesecake with raspberry coulis and some fresh raspberries and blueberries on the side.

Service at Trader Vic's is first-class. The main servers are elegantly clad in black while the back-up help wears blue Hawaiian-print shirts. The restaurant's bar hosts a nightly special. Mai Tais are only $4.50 on Thursdays and you get music by Tongo Hiti. I have no idea. Nor can I explain another flier's mention of occasional performances by the "Dames Aflame A Gogo and Monkey Zuma."

Here and there

We stopped in Apres Diem in Midtown Promenade for a late dinner after a movie last week. The restaurant was packed. We were seated beside a window where we watched a man repeatedly attempt to fondle the breasts of his date in the lounge area. She never even slapped him. If only every meal could provide such entertainment.

Wayne ordered the salade Nicoise, which I'm not fond of here because it's made with a chunk of unappealing, flavorless tuna instead of the usual good-quality canned stuff that blends much better with other ingredients. My linguine with basil-tomato sauce and grilled chicken hit the spot. ...

I recently checked out Chocolate Pink Pastry Café (905 Juniper St., 404-745-9292). The pastries are so perfect they'll make you utter that cliché: "They are too pretty to eat." But, hey, they really do taste good and you get to swill Ily espresso. I have one word for you: "Petunia." Just repeat it when they ask for your order. The only problem with the place is parking. There is a garage on the Eighth Street side of the building and the café will validate your parking ticket. ...

Correction: In my recent mention of the fried chicken at Redfish, I attributed the dish to Jack Sobel, co-owner of the restaurant. It is actually the creation of chef Gregg Herndon, who first served it at his former restaurant, Tiburon Grille. ...

Silvia Long, formerly of Atlanta and now living in Portland, Ore., writes, after reading my thumbs-up for the fried chicken at Publix, that the wings, cooked with various sauces, are equally good. "They made life a little easier when I was studying for my qualifying exam and writing my dissertation," she says. Good for Silvia. I lived on Klondike bars when I was undergoing that agonizing process.

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