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Wisteria: Flower power

6 years old and still getting better

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"One of the great things about fried chicken is that people never get tired of talking about it," Kim Severson wrote recently in the New York Times' blog, Diner's Journal. She was reporting from the annual Southern Foodways Alliance symposium held recently in Oxford, Miss.

Actually, I disagree. Although I've written plenty about fried chicken myself, I'm as sick of hearing about it as I am reading the perennial articles on sweet tea. Of course, I have a personal stake in this. It annoyed me recently when one of my favorite alternatives wasn't included in the AJC's roundup of good skillet-cooked chicken.

I'm talking about Jason Hill's skillet-roasted chicken at Wisteria (471 N. Highland Ave., 404-525-3363). It's a lot like Maryland-style fried chicken, breaded but instead of fried, cooked in the oven. Served over collard greens with corn pudding, it's one of my favorites in the city. But there's a silver lining to my annoyance. It prompted me to revisit the restaurant last week.

Hill, owner and chef, opened Wisteria in September 2001 after stints at Harvest, Partners and Indigo Coastal Grill. In my experience the restaurant has gotten better and better and deserves characterization as one of the best in the city. It also deserves credit for being among those that have led the recent revitalization of Southern cooking in our city, although I must note that the menu doesn't seem to have changed much over the last six years.

The restaurant remains eminently comfortable, with warm lighting, gold paint, brick walls, a wood floor and exposed wood rafters. Foodies will remember that it was formerly the home of the very popular Babette's, which has moved up the road.

My starter was one of the most interesting dishes I've encountered in a while. I could eat it daily for a few weeks. It featured three chubby sea scallops over braised pork belly with radicchio and a bourbon-molasses reduction. It took me by surprise. I expected the radicchio's faint bitterness to compare to a pointedly sweet reduction. Happily, the molasses reduction was not so sweet, only faintly so. The pork belly was meaty, not especially fatty but an earthy complement to the scallops. The dish is also an allusion to classic American cooking: Variety pork cuts were often sweetened with molasses in the 19th century.

The molasses reappeared in Wayne's entree – incredibly tender pork tenderloin, rubbed with the stuff, and served over sweet-potato soufflé with a relish of Vidalia onions, apple and walnuts. Here again, Hill contains the sweetness that is overplayed in too many Southern restaurants. Not only was the molasses dark and subtly sweet, the potatoes were likewise limited mainly to their natural sweetness. One minor complaint: a bit too much sage in the pork's marinade for my taste.

My entree was a huge bowl of jumbo shrimp over grits, with sautéed peppers and onions and a spicy broth. As it happens, that was my third meal in a row featuring shrimp, and Wisteria featured by far the most flavorful of them. I am really sick of eating flavorless shrimp around town. I assume the flavor is dependent on whether it's been frozen, but I've not found that price or fanciness much affects whether the shrimp are going to taste good or not.

Wayne, an epidemiologist, felt compelled to note that my dinner featured the two ingredients that formed the diet of people who suffered pellagra in the 1930s – pork belly and corn (in the form of grits), neither of which supply needed tryptophan. I'll live.

What else? Tuscan bread soup, featuring white beans, charred onions and aged Parmesan, was a pleasing starter for Wayne. We also ordered a dessert sampler of three (but because of a mix-up in the kitchen, ended up with four). Our server explained that customers had long complained that the large entree portions made eating a regular-portion dessert difficult.

So now they offer nibble-size dessert plates you can share. I'm doubtful you eat any less. The best thing we sampled was a cherry tart with vanilla ice cream, then pecan pie with whipped cream, then a sweet-potato ice cream (with marshmallows). I'd skip the chocolate cake with orange sauce, unless you happen to like that flavor combination outside a box of Whitman's dime-store chocolates.

I can't say enough about the service at Wisteria. This has been true every time I've visited. Servers are smart, know the menu, have personality and maintain a watchful eye. I asked our server, Buffy, where she got her name and she replied that her mother had been a fan of Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Native American folk singer and activist (with a Ph.D. in fine arts). I listened to her frequently when I was in college. I hadn't heard her name in years. She was blacklisted during the Lyndon Johnson years and forced to perform mainly in Europe. Then, she ended up on "Sesame Street" in the mid-'70s.

"I have no idea why my mother named me after her. It's not like my mother was a hippie or something," Buffy said.

"Well," I replied, "you wouldn't have to be a hippie to like her." Then I remembered that I was indeed something of a hippie. Oh well. A great dinner, great service and memories of hippiedom.

Here and there

Wayne and I hit the Righteous Room (1051 Ponce de Leon Ave., next to the Plaza Theatre, 404-874-0939) for dinner one night last week. And we had another stellar server, as it happens. Of course, she may have been in such a good mood because she was moving to Portland the next day. We pinned $5 to her shirt to help with the gas expenses.

Nah, the servers here are always cool.

I love the Righteous Room, even though it is too dark to read in. I had a burger with garlicky black beans, and Wayne had a turkey-melt wrap with fresh grilled asparagus. ...

Check out our blog, OmnivoreATL.com, for a report on a great find, Dynamic Dish, in Sweet Auburn. It's all organic and all delicious. I'll say more next week.

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