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Cheap Eats - Il Mulino's lunch buffet

Cheap eats at one of the city's most expensive restaurants

How did we go from two-martini business lunches to harried fast-food excursions, sandwiches and nuked leftovers while toiling at our desks? Some would argue it's a budgetary concern. But you deserve the occasional pause, even if it is on the cheap. And there happens to be just the place smack dab in the middle of downtown Atlanta. It offers not only a major deal at $10.95 per person, but also a civilized sit-down meal on an enclosed “terrace” set inside the bustling grand lobby of Peachtree Tower.

You may have heard about Il Mulino (191 Peachtree St., 404-524-5777, www.ilmulino.com/visit_us2.html), the extremely overpriced Italian restaurant from New York, when it opened. The original location in New York is spectacular, but I’ve found that the offshoots — such as the Miami location — just don’t live up to the coziness or immense personality of the smaller Manhattan home base. My curiosity about the Atlanta location was quashed by my reluctance to drop a stack of bills on something I knew didn’t travel well. And I really need a good excuse to switch out my flats for a pair of heels. But rumors of a shockingly cheap lunch buffet enticed me — no torturous footwear required.

Lunch is served as a buffet, but this is no sad-looking food begging to be plucked from steam tables. Instead, you choose from an assortment of salads, chilled dishes, pasta, soup, a fish or meat in sauce and a carving station where roasted leg of lamb or beef stuffed with peppers and spinach is sliced to order by a joke-cracking chef. On one visit, a salad of cherry tomatoes was full of flavor, room temperature, lightly dressed, and tossed with bite-sized orbs of fresh mozzarella so creamy its quality couldn’t be denied. Delicate slices of chilled Vitello tonnato — veal in tuna sauce — melt on the tongue, the sauce's tanginess showcasing underlying complexity thanks to the tuna. A farfalle pasta with mozzarella and tomatoes was summery and pleasantly light.

Eating hot soup in this Georgia heat may seem unappealing, but the pasta e fagioli has been uniformly excellent on each visit, filled with short tubes of pasta and tender white beans that contribute a creaminess to the broth’s silky texture. Dessert is not included in the price of the buffet, but there are some standard choices such as tiramisu if you don’t mind spending a couple of extra bucks. And the restaurant makes an excellent espresso, complete with a thick layer of “crema” and an amber sugar swizzle stick.

Service is congenial, quick and genuinely warm — the thick Italian accents don’t hurt, either. Servers bring the bill to the table before being asked so busy office folks can get in and out quickly. Since the restaurant is downtown, parking is an issue (there's no valet, and you may end up paying more to park than you pay for lunch). But there are a few decks near the restaurant, MARTA is relatively close, and it's an easy stroll if you work in the area.

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