Seafood and spice

Fiery Mexican fare found here and there

When Wayne and I returned to Atlanta on July 4th, after five days in the North Carolina mountains, we couldn't face the usual dinner of barbecue and nationalism. So we headed out Buford Highway in search of something alien. We didn't go far. We stopped at Marisqueria 7 Mares (3009 Buford Hwy., 404-477-0300). Loosely translated, that's "Seven Seas Seafood Restaurant." Frankly, we'd been slow to visit this place because we've yet to recover from the sudden closing of the previous tenant, Greek Island Taverna, a restaurant that brought Atlanta its first taste of cliche-free Greek food.

Happily, Marisqueria 7 Mares is nearly as much of a breakthrough for Atlanta. We've returned twice. I don't mean that you won't find some of the dishes at other restaurants. Mexican restaurants specializing in seafood — like Mariscolandia and La Ruleta — are opening all over the city. But 7 Mares is a radical leap forward. You'll suspect this instantly from the big crowd of Mexicans frequently eating there and the number of license plates from all over the metro area.

It's a party. The restaurant has added a big deck. You can swill Tecate, fresh-fruit margaritas or tequila under big blue umbrellas that shade the July sun. Tostadas are offered with a fiery green sauce and a salsa fresca with bites of marinated fish in it. The latter will whet your taste for a starter of ceviche ($8.95). It's a huge portion, plenty for two or more, and completely fresh. Pile the ceviche on top of the tostadas and add a dollop of the green sauce. You could easily make a meal of this alone.

It will take many visits to work through the menu here. We've yet to try the soups, which include one made with seafood meatballs along with those made with fresh-water prawns, shrimp, lobster, crab and combinations thereof ($8.95-$17.95). There's a whole menu of dishes made from various fileted fish, either grilled or fried ($12.95-$14.95).

We have sampled the market-priced, whole red snapper, deliciously fried (without batter, thank you!), and served with rice and French fries. As good as it is — the meat tender and sweet, the skin crunchy — I prefer the grilled dishes and those that combine seafoods. Combination Veracruzana ($15.95), for example, includes a nicely cooked and seasoned filet with a stew of shrimp, octopus and more fish on the side. The stew needs a good shot of hot sauce to bring out its flavors.

If you want to totally indulge yourself, order the almost absurdly excessive parrillada cielo, mar y tierra. Yep, that's grilled surf 'n' turf plus a winged creature, in this case a quail. You also get: half a whole lobster, shrimp, steak, pork chops, chorizo, cactus, spring onions, jalapenos, charra beans and guacamole salad. This grilled feast, which is served atop a kind of molcajete, costs $35 for two. You can build tacos with the ingredients, cutting up the roasted jalapeos and combining them with pieces of the chorizo or marrying chunks of the pork chops with the grilled onions and beans. You won't leave anything behind. It beats the hell out of fajitas.

During our last meal, we ordered the restaurant's green coconuts for dessert ($7.50). The restaurant bores the coconut open and serves it to you initially as a drink garnished with a pink parasol skewering a cherry and orange slice. You sip the watery coconut milk through a straw. It's an acquired taste, frankly. (In fact, they offer to pour gin into the coconut and you might want to consider it.)

After you have drained the coconut, the server will take the shell back to the kitchen to cut it in half. Then, she returns it for you to eat the "meat." If you thought the "milk" was an acquired taste, the meat of a green coconut is even more so. It is slimy and soft, vaguely fishy tasting.

Otherwise, this is a don't-miss restaurant. Hurry.

In Asheville

Speaking of spicy food, we found an amazing café in Asheville. Indeed, we have nothing like Salsas (6 Patton Ave., 828-252-9805) in Atlanta. Wayne called it "vegetarian food with meat." Everything is made with organic produce, steroid-free beef and free-range chickens.

Wildly cross-cultural, the little café features some of the most creative cooking I've encountered in quite a while. Imagine a salsa made of arame seaweed, chayote, red peppers and lime leaves. It's one of five similarly surreal but tasty sauces.

While the basic inspiration here is the owner's native Puerto Rican cuisine, the regular menu and specials draw their ingredients from any place on the planet that makes use of chiles. Frankly, though, we had difficulty sometimes locating the "fire" in our dishes' chilies. Later, we noticed that the menu says the heat can be turned up. If you don't make that request, by all means request a shot of the restaurant's homemade habaero sauce, one of the best I have ever tasted (and available for sale).

Imagine trying to find this in Atlanta, and for $11.25: roasted jerked boar with toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted red peppers, grilled spinach, organic mushrooms, capers and goat cheese, with chipotle and tomatillo sauces, rice, beans and plantains. Finally, there's a salsa of tomatoes, leeks, curry leaves, red onion and cilantro. How about grilled flank steak in chimichurri sauce with grilled organic mushrooms, fried onions and goat cheese ($11.95)?

There are weird burritos made with yucca and garlic, grilled spinach, roasted tomatoes, pesto veggies and black beans with a salsa of mango, passion fruit and ginger ($7.95). Specials may also include Thai-inspired dishes.

Somebody should copy the concept here soon — or Salsas should start franchising itself.

Contact Cliff Bostock at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or at grazer@mindspring.com.

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