Vongerichten's finds Spice of life in Atlanta

Jean-Georges Vongerichten doesn't have the imposing look one might expect from a world-famous chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer. The multi-James Beard Award winner is dressed impeccably in a blue suit, shirt stylishly untucked, sipping on a Thai coffee across the table from me at Tamarind Thai Cuisine in Midtown.

But for a man who's traveled the globe in search of the next big flavor, especially when it comes to Asian cuisine, he somewhat sheepishly admits that this sweet, cool coffee concoction is the closest he's gotten to the menu at one of Atlanta's best Thai places.

"When I'm in town, I'm always at the restaurant," he offers as explanation.

"The restaurant" is Spice Market, inside the W Atlanta-Midtown, and Vongerichten has traveled from New York to be part of the hotel's grand, red carpet opening. Atlanta's installation of the restaurant, with its focus on Asian street food, is the first to open outside the isle of Manhattan, where it's wildly popular in the trendy Meatpacking District.

The chef has spent time in Atlanta, with chef Guenter Seeger and Pano Karatassos, the patriarch of the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group. His connection with Karatassos led him to Ian Winslade, a former Buckhead Life chef who cut his culinary teeth at Bluepointe during its Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston heyday.

"It's so easy to get the things we need for the menu in Atlanta," Vongerichten proclaimed. "In New York, it's hard to get certain things as fresh as you can here." To that, he's promised a seasonal menu from Winslade at Spice Market, making changes as the seasons allow.

"There are so many great chefs out there now," he said. "The real challenge for today's chefs is finding the best product. Everything is farmed, though there are better farming practices. But who knows what they are feeding farmed fish?" he asked.

Vongerichten said he will travel to Atlanta at least once a month to check on Spice Market, open just a little over two months. He still spends up to six hours a day cooking, though now his efforts are creative and culminate in menu changes.

His business relationship with Starwood Hotels, W Hotel's parent company, resulted in the expansion of Spice Market, and the two are rumored to have a deal in the works for a new concept similar to Vongerichten's Mercer Kitchen inside the W Atlanta-Buckhead scheduled to open this fall, though neither party will confirm nor deny it. For now, Spice Market will take up most of his time.

Small plates at Repast

Chef-owner Joe Truex of Midtown's Repast is offering a "petite Repast" menu of small plates and "quasi-entrees" for $20. "Signs of the economy's downturn are starting to show," said Truex, "and we want people to know they have a place they can go, have a great meal and a terrific glass of wine and not have to spend that much." The menu offers smaller plates of salt cod fritters and chicken liver mousse with grilled rosemary bread and moves to larger options of chilled noodle salad with tofu tempura and black sesame dressing as well as pork tonkatsu with cabbage slaw. Choose one of each, plus a glass of selected wines for $5, the bottle for $18. Repast, 620 Glen Iris Drive N.E., Atlanta. 404-870-8707, www.repastrestaurant.com.

Short stack

• Diesel, a casual American bistro concept, will open in the former Dish space in Virginia-Highland.

• The owners of the Brick Store Pub in Decatur have taken over the former Rue de Leon on the corner of Church and East Ponce.

• Parker's on Ponce will take the old Mick's space in Decatur.

• Six Feet Under on Memorial Drive is moving a few, um, feet down the street.

Get into the conversation: Visit my blog. If your restaurant is new, closing or undergoing changes, or you have a food-related event, we want to hear from you. Send the information — including your name, phone number, e-mail and Web site if you have one — to mford@ajc.com.

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