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Culinary Character: Paul Luna

Among his peers, Paul Luna sticks out like an extreme skateboarder at a golf convention. As tiny and intense in his forties as he was two decades ago when he first landed in Atlanta, he has yet to cut the waist-long hair (now gray) that he braids tightly like a Na’vi in Avatar. His deep, dominant voice has mellowed, and he no longer relies exclusively on curse words for emphasis. Mostly he reserves his wrath for city bureaucrats who made liquor license and parking issues so difficult for Lunacy Black Market, the restaurant he opened in late 2009 on a blighted corner of Downtown.

Strip Steak: Cheetah’s Alluvia

I didn’t drag my editor to the Cheetah. He wanted to go. For the food.

Quinones at Bacchanalia

I walked into Quinones at Bacchanalia, glanced around, and realized I was the only fellow wearing a suit. This surprised me. After all, Quinones is the most formal restaurant experience left in Atlanta. Situated on the lower level of the Westside complex that houses Bacchanalia and Star Provisions, the hushed Southern Gothic dining room holds only eleven tables. It serves a nine-course set menu (no choices, but it changes weekly and includes several bonus noshes) that costs $125 per person—$195 if you opt for wine pairings with seven of the dishes. It is a restaurant engineered for lavishness. Why not dress for the occasion?

Bacchanalia

A server at Bacchanalia set down an orb of crabmeat bound in a bronzed coating of breadcrumbs, arranged over splayed avocado slices, and stippled with orange and grapefruit sections. Vanilla beans speckled a shallow pool of vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl; the maternal warmth of their aroma and flavor calmed the precocious jolts of Thai pepper essence that bounced among the ingredients. Every sweet, hot, mellow, and tingly nuance harmonized with the crab. The effect of the dish was akin to the reprieve after an evening thunderstorm that dissipates the Atlanta summer heat. My heart felt lighter afterward.

Rediscovery: Top Flr

Part of what made Top Flr special when it opened in the summer of 2007, around the corner from Mary Mac’s Tearoom, was its ingenious floor plan: a sliver of a bar and a mysterious dining room accessible by a steep staircase that hid behind a narrow, monochromatic facade. It looked like it belonged in London or Dublin. The interior was mod and dark. And even though there was nothing terribly clever about the food, the dishes felt lean and elemental. The prices were great, too, and the bartenders knew how to keep the clientele interested.

Bocado

Watching Atlanta's Westside develop has been the urban equivalent of witnessing a new mountain range emerge in fast-forward: So much fresh geography, so many uncharted nooks. What is currently the area’s most fertile corridor of businesses—between the junction of Northside Drive and Marietta Street and the intersection of Howell Mill Road and Fourteenth Street—felt forsaken just five years ago. Now you can stop for Thai curry at Spoon, pick up cupcakes in a dozen flavors at Caryn’s Cakes, grab panini at Toscano & Sons Italian Market, and disappear into the clump of businesses dubbed the "Beer-muda Triangle": 5 Seasons Brewing Company, retailer Hop City, and Octane, which serves Belgian ales and microbrews alongside coffee. This stretch also claims its share of destination restaurants—Bacchanalia, Abattoir, and the just-opened Miller Union among them.

Woodfire Grill

Woodfire Grill on Cheshire Bridge Road has undergone many changes in the last year, but its most essential trademark endures. The sweet, smoky aromas drifting from the open kitchen at the dining room's entrance still tranquilize as if a lullaby had dissolved into fragrance. Borrowed from the playbook of California cuisine, the layout places the focal point of cooking directly in the path of newly arrived guests, who inhale scents evocative of campfire and barbecue en route to their table. Those first wafts anchor the meal. They communicate the tone and ambitions of the restaurant more effectively than words on a menu ever could. And now they act as an aromatic through-line that connects the restaurant’s past with its recent and remarkable reinvention.

Rediscovery: Monday night BBQ at P’Cheen

Fans of the band Mike LaSage and the Stumbling Troubadours may be surprised to hear that, when not performing a mix of alt-country and rock, its young lead singer/guitarist cooks in a pub, where he is the resident barbecue idol. LaSage, who has been the sous chef at P’cheen in the Old Fourth Ward for the last three years, currently gets his moment of glory every Monday night, when he takes over the kitchen and puts his stamp on a special menu consisting largely of pulled pork, ribs, homemade sausage, and chicken with four classic sauces.

The Bookhouse Pub’s Julia LeRoy

What is a nice, delicate-looking girl like Julia LeRoy doing searing pork chops in a kitchen that often reaches 95 degrees? If you met her out of context, you’d be more likely to guess “writes poetry in the shade” than “heads kitchen in a busy gourmet pub.”

Restaurant Eugene

Among the forty-four dishes listed on an April menu at Restaurant Eugene, my eyes came to rest on a description that roused my curiosity: "Roasted shad roe, onion puree, lime pickle butter.” An uninitiated tablemate cocked his head quizzically when this plate arrived at the table. No way around it: Shad roe is one of nature’s uglier handiworks. A lobe of tiny eggs from the notoriously bony shad fish that runs briefly through the mid-Atlantic rivers in spring, the roe looks like a bloody horror-flick prop when raw and turns an unappealing gray when cooked. Yet this fleeting prize is sublime in flavor, offering a mild but hardscrabble pungency that suggests freezing water, upstream struggle, and the funkier nuances of caviar. Matching it with lime pickle butter tamed its feral qualities and evoked two distinct cuisines: Pickles are a staple in the South, but the triple hit of brine, heat, and citrus tasted undeniably of an Indian condiment. What an ingenious collaboration.

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