Funked up and toned down
Good old Mumbo Jumbo and a new Cavu
When last I visited Mumbo Jumbo (89 Park Place, 404-523-0330), it was a cold winter day after a snow that shut much of the city down. Lunch in a nearly empty dining room was so disagreeable — from service to quality of the food — that I concluded Executive Chef Shaun Doty must have adjourned to become chef in the ozone.
Doty is one of our city's most passionate chefs, devoted to the slow food movement and its accent on seasonal local food, traveling constantly to enlarge his repertoire, frequently teaching with an infectious enthusiasm. I saw him pour fine balsamic vinegar over strawberries and panna cotta at the organic farmers market on North Highland last summer and wax so poetically that I fairly sprinted to Salumeria Taggiasca (209 Edgewood Ave., 404-524-0006) to buy a bottle of the Chanel-priced stuff.
Doty, a Johnson & Wales grad, worked under Guenter Seeger, our city's culinary Svengali, and then in restaurants throughout Europe. Next, he bounced to Colorado, then to Savannah and finally back to Atlanta to take over Mumbo Jumbo (which originally opened with a menu designed by Seeger). He also had a hand in the short-lived Fusebox, one of the most remarkable restaurants to open in our city, doubtlessly doomed to a short life by its rarefied genius.
So, you can understand how that lunch of undercooked chicken and bad attitude was a shock. I returned for dinner last week with a great deal of reluctance and I'm happy to say I had one of the best meals I've had in quite a while.
Part of the problem here is its location. Downtown, in what was the city's oldest bar, which later became the kinky nightclub Velvet, Mumbo Jumbo attracts a lot of business and convention folks to whom it has to be hard to sell really creative food. The restaurant, with its gorgeously sinful red bar walls downstairs, is as much a party spot as a cuisine destination, it appears. There's a Jetsons-style lounge upstairs where beautiful people display bleached teeth and end up with their pictures on the restaurant's website (mumbojumbo-atl.com).
The main dining room remains one of the most eccentric in our city. After six years, though, it might like a bit of a redo. Recalling Gaudi's mosaics in Barcelona, tiled columns punctuate a room with big skylights. We arrived as the sun was setting and watched the crowded room change from slightly melancholic to glamorous. "Oh look," said Wayne. "There's that weatherman from the Fox station."
I literally don't watch television — never have and don't know why — but I was impressed. "Isn't that the right-wing station?" I asked. Wayne nodded. "Well," I said, "I guess Doppler Radar is Doppler Radar, no matter your political persuasion."
The food. The menu, printed daily, is a real work of art. There's a choice of eight starters and seven entrees and seven desserts, with a few side dishes. A tasting menu ($50 or $75 with wine pairing) offers four courses of dishes not otherwise available.
Everyone's fave starter here is the widely imitated Sardinian flatbread ($10) with arugula, parmesan and Moroccan argan oil — a fragrant, nutty oil extracted from the argan almond. Leave it to Doty to be using an oil that is from a tree protected by UNESCO. Though I love the dish, I had to sample the oxtail ravioli ($10) instead. The ravioli were wrapped about ground oxtail with a touch of fontina cheese. Served in a big white bowl, they were garnished with braised Swiss chard and sliced crimini mushrooms. The bottom of the bowl held juices from the oxtail touched with the slightly bitter chard.
Wayne picked a cool, blended gazpacho ($8) for his starter. Sunk in the middle was a little scoop of Dijon mustard ice cream. We agreed that the "ice cream" didn't come off much like ice cream but the flavor was nice. The gazpacho may have been the best I've tasted in Atlanta. I would love to see someone here make my favorite version from Spain — salmorejo, with bits of Serrano ham and hard-boiled egg.
Portions here are oddly huge, by the way, and by the time we got to our entrees, I was already feeling pretty full. I ordered flawlessly roasted pork tenderloin ($26). It was served with herbed buckwheat polenta and a large braised celery heart. Celery is probably my least favorite vegetable on the planet but Doty gave me a new appreciation for the stuff. It can actually have flavor.
Wayne's entree was melt-in-your-mouth Irish salmon baked in cream ($24). The dish included roasted carrots, baby turnips, green onions and potatoes. These vegetables, like the mysterious celery, were remarkably flavorful, and demonstrate Doty's passion for fine produce.
We finished by splitting chocolate-coated bruschetta topped with figs, pineapple cubes and sour cream ice cream ($6). We were disappointed by the scarcity of figs in the dish. We dealt with our disappointment by polishing the plate.
Honestly, Mumbo Jumbo has evolved into a first-class restaurant. A good opportunity to test the menu is Downtown Atlanta Restaurant Week July 29-Aug. 3, when Doty will offer a three-course meal for about $20.
You beautiful people. You just can't take the weirdness, can you? When Cavu (794 Juniper St., 404-875-2229) opened late last summer across the street from Spice, it featured one of the kinkiest menus ever to hit Midtown. Though it stumbled here and there, the kitchen mainly succeeded with esoterica like buffalo ossobuco with roasted cippolinis, lingonberry syrup and mascarpone polenta.
Undoubtedly, our Southern Gothic hip crowd couldn't quite grok almond milk- marinated sweetbreads washed in Madeira and the restaurant recently closed briefly for a menu redo. The result is a much more straightforward menu heavy on seafood. It's not a bad idea at all. Though it doesn't reach the giddy heights of Piranha in Buckhead, I had a good meal there last week without the agony of driving to hell.
I should compliment our server, Matt, at the outset. Indeed, I make him Waitron and Martyr of the Week. Wayne and I were in the throes of yet another argument about Unabomber Acres, our six-month remodeling project outside Highlands. Matt did not once pour a drink over our heads to calm us down.
We ate with a furious vengeance, each bite a wound to the corpus of that collective creature called "contractors." Wayne's starter was shrimp wrapped in pancetta and grilled, served over a frisee salad with tangerine ($10). I found the pancetta a bit thick and crunchy, but it's a small complaint. My starter — fluffy hot beignets made with crab — was served with a ginger aioli ($9).
My entree was a big serving of fat diver scallops, sweet and seared, with peanut potatoes, fried watercress and an emulsion of ginger and coconut milk ($19). I found Wayne's entree less satisfying. His wolffish ($17), that toothy fish that Europeans often call "catfish," had great flavor by itself or dredged through a lobster-carrot emulsion. However, I disliked its bed of shrimp-fried rice, reminding me of takeout Chinese-American food.
Other new dishes on the menu include gazpacho, tuna tartare, lobster flautas, grilled ahi tuna, halibut and a few meat dishes, including a pork chop, a ribeye steak and chicken.
I hope Cavu can pull this off. I hear other restaurateurs in town are watching like vultures, hoping the restaurant goes under so they can grab the property and, I imagine, open yet another mediocre venue featuring Versace-wrapped burgers.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.