Intersection of good flavors

Dining review by John Kessler

Table & Main

1028 Canton St., Roswell [2 of 5 stars]

After years of settling for "quaint," Canton Sreet in downtown Roswell has finally emerged as "exciting." People dress up to come here. They hop from restaurant to restaurant looking for a spare table if they don't have reservations. They brave the chill air of November nights to sit out on patios under heat lamps and knit blankets, just to be part of the scene.

The brick walkways, the glow of street lamps, the wafting smells of food, the ambient strains of live music, the luxury cars idling along the narrow two-lane strip: This setting makes every restaurant more desirable simply for being part of it.

That said, Table & Main has wasted no time in establishing itself as the most accomplished of the bunch. A canny renovation of a 1910 house (most recently an antique store), it opened this past August with a confident vision for its tight, noisy quarters. Owners Ryan Pernice and Ted Lahey (the chef) make magic with this property's footprint, taking advantage of its front porch and bricked-in patio for added seating, while keeping the two interior rooms and wonderfully cozy side bar just this side of cramped. There's such good energy here-- and such good service to back it up -- that it seems an instant neighborhood classic.

Lahey's food -- the Southern bistro fare that today's Atlantans demand from their hot new restaurants -- fits into the scheme well. Fried chicken and collard greens keep company on the menu with hanger steaks and wedge salads, and the kitchen strikes a good balance between homey and cheffy, between comforting and impressing. Lahey has a fine palate and shows good technique, though I do wish he'd put down the playbook a little more and establish a stronger point of view on this familiar bill of fare. He's got the chops.

Consider a bowl of Charleston she-crab soup ($9) sharpened with dots of chili oil and a fine dice of celery -- pinpricks of spice and texture that open up the flavor so you really taste that sweet funk of crab behind the cream and sherry. It's a standard dish, but this restaurant's own, and I haven't found a better one in the city.

Likewise, Lahey's meatloaf meatballs ($9) don't exactly break new ground, but then again they do. These three tender and exceptionally well-seasoned mounds of ground beef come with a ketchupy, vinegary glaze in a classy cast iron casserole. It's comfort food elevated, and exactly the kind of dish on which a Southern bistro like Table & Main makes its name.

If other appetizers don't have the sparkle of these two, they seem perfectly correct. Enjoy a finely mixed Rittenhouse rye Manhattan ($8) with a "Preservation Platter" ($14) of cured meats, Sweetgrass Dairy cheese and accompaniments. Factor in the excellent (and complimentary) house cheese straws and you can take an express train to Happy Camper Land. A spinach and pear salad ($9) with blue cheese and candied pecans has the right dressing for sweet ingredients -- thin and gently applied with a penetrating tang -- though you know you've had this salad dozens of times. And, well, it is that same baby spinach you buy by the box at Publix. How nice it would be if a chef somewhere made the effort to source flavorful, crenulated mature spinach. Surely it still exists.

This kitchen might up the ante on its choice of ingredients, particularly in light of the reasonably high prices charged. A duck breast ($25) fanned in tiny slices over a heap of roasted parsnips and Brussels sprouts comes a full degree more cooked than we request, but it's no wonder. The kitchen uses smaller Maple Leaf Farms White Pekin (CQ) ducks, which are better suited to roasting whole. The larger and more flavorful Muscovy breed is what you want for a rare duck breast that impresses in Atlanta today, particularly at $25. A $16 vegetable plate offers some nice grilled artichokes in center position, but a bit of bland arugula salad and greasy root vegetable hash do little to fill out this meager meal. I love a good veg plate if it doesn't make you miss meat.

Lahey does have a way with fried chicken ($17) -- huge quarter pieces that he brines, deep fries and piles on a plate alongside creamy potato salad and apple slaw in a towering portion. It's impressive stuff, though my personal taste runs to smaller pieces of chicken with hot sides.

As long as it's true confessions time, I like hush puppies that are sweet, yellow and taste of dehydrated onions and spices. The version here ($6) -- crunchy fried orbs of savory, whole-kernel-studded cornbread -- doesn't hit my hush puppy spot at all.

But generally the food appeals. Tasty grilled grouper ($24) and a fat Wagyu beef burger with cheddar ($13) won't win awards but won't disappoint. Country-fried veal ($24), misidentified as tenderloin on the menu but actually top round, sports a clever biscuit breading to go with its creamy sawmill gravy (Get it? Biscuits and gravy?). If you don't mind the utter lack of crunch in this dish, you'll appreciate its spirit of dreamy richness.

You will also appreciate the smart beverage program, starting with a long list of bourbons and rye whiskeys. The wine list makes ample room for the alternative whites-- Grüner Veltliner, Vermentino, Riesling -- that best match the Southern frying and roasted vegetables that define this menu. In fact, the wine list had me at hello with a Château de Campuget Rhône rosé by the glass ($8).

The slim dessert selections, though, need work. Neither dull chocolate pudding served awkwardly in a cocktail glass ($5) nor a doughy pie of undercooked apples ($7) appeals. Bourbon butter pecan ice cream from High Road Craft ($5) steps in to save the day. I've noticed that more and more restaurants rely on this excellent local producer.

I'd love to see what else Chef Lahey can do once he rotates a few safe dishes off the menu and expands his definition of Southern bistro cooking. Table & Main is for now an appealing, well-run restaurant with a nice, if not forceful, personality. But I think it could be a real destination. More people need to come to downtown Roswell and see what's going on.

Join the conversation on John Kessler's blog: www.ajc.com/go/foodandmore. Or email John: @jkessler@ajc.com.

Table & Main

Overall rating: [2 of 5 stars]

Food: Southern bistro

Service: Knowledgeable and attentive; you're well taken care of here

Best dishes: Charleston she-crab soup, meatloaf meatballs, country-fried veal with sawmill gravy

Vegetarian selections: There's a vegetable plate, but it needs some additions to make it a meal

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Price range: $$$

Credit cards: All major

Hours: 5-10 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 5-9 p.m., Sunday.

Children: I wouldn't take small children here. The space is tight and noisy.

Parking: Problematic. The small lot in back fills quickly. After that, you've got limited street and public parking nearby. The local businesses would be well-advised to find a communal solution.

Reservations: Yes

Wheelchair access: Yes

Smoking: No

Noise level: An issue in the back dining room but more manageable in the front. The conversation will likely get around to sound-dampening technology.

Patio: Patio seating in front and in the side garden.

Takeout: Not encouraged, but will accommodate patrons who ask

Address, phone: 1028 Canton St., Roswell. 678-869-5178

Website: www.tableandmain.com