Mexican, French, American, Cuban and Indian go down easy
I've been dining the last week around Midtown, sometimes being dragged by friends to places I'd rather not go, resulting in my changing my mind about a few places and discovering assets I'd not noticed before.
My friend Van, for example, was craving a burrito Saturday and I took him to my favorite Mexican grocery for the weekend barbacoa. He took one look at the authentic cuisine and insisted we go to Willy's at Piedmont Park.
I've been wanting to return to Willy's ever since I wrote a mediocre review about a month ago and received an avalanche of mail telling me, as always, that I have no taste. It's not that I haven't tried to return, but I can never find a parking spot on the weekends. Van and I parked five blocks away and hiked.
This trip, I asked the very pleasant guys working the line to leave off the rice and the mystery cheese. You'll never guess. My green mole chicken burrito, with just some red beans, salsa and cilantro, was delicious. I could actually taste the meat, which was completely lost in the rice and overabundance of extras in my earlier tasting.
Even more surprising to me was the charolitas — tacos of corn tortillas filled with a meat, coleslaw, tomatillo sauce, cilantro and onions. They were just as authentic as we might have tasted at the Mexican grocery.
Van, a runner who lives on rice, of course ordered the hugest burrito possible stuffed with everything available, and a gigantic cheese quesadilla on the side. Ugh. Less is more, yes? Not when you're in your 20s apparently.
The difference for me — the more of which I want less — obviously, is the rice. Several people who wrote said they'd had the same experience but, loving rice, asked the restaurant to double their meat so that it wasn't lost. Incidentally, several other people wrote that my preference for Tortillas, which remains unchanged, was surprising because they found too much liquid in the burritos there. Order Willy's without rice and you will get the identical effect.
A few days later, Van and I dined at Indigo Coastal Grill, the Frenchified re-do of Alix Kenagy's original restaurant of the same name here. (Just to be clear, Alix Kenagy no longer has anything to do with the place.) I gave the restaurant a good review, except for some clueless service, the week it opened and found it even better last week.
Apparently, the neighborhood agrees. It was packed and service has improved radically. Indeed, our server Britain, herewith declared Waitron of the Week, cracked us up with her excessive perkiness. It would have annoyed the hell out of me if she hadn't been so genuinely attentive.
Van, on a hunt for the city's best mussels, started with a big bowl of them ($9.50) cooked in Chablis, cream and a light curry seasoning, along with parsley, shallots and garlic. He declared them a notch below those he ate at Anis a week ago, but I found them actually a better quality even if the seasoning was a bit less interesting. My own appetizer of homemade duck foie gras with rhubarb marmalade was flawless but a stingy portion for the $12 price.
My entree was one of the best pieces of fish I've had in quite a while. The restaurant is pan cooking whole fish and filleting it at the table, a la Sotto Sotto, but with more variation. The selection changes daily and dorade, a fish very popular in the Mediterranean, was available last week. I've eaten dorade grilled in Italy and France and even in Moroccan tagines. Meaty, with a strong flavor not unlike pompano, it's a nice departure from the usual. Britain deftly boned mine and plunked it on a white plate with a mound of mashed potatoes weirdly decorated with a cherry tomato and a white and green stalk of asparagus. It looked rather like a cartoon clown whose features had been misarranged.
Van's entree was nearly as good — lobster and scallops braised in ginger broth, topped with candied orange peels and some vegetables ($20.50). The ginger is a terrific contrast to the sweet shellfish and the orange peel likewise adds a tart edge. Order it.
Einstein's has to be one of my least favorite restaurants in Midtown, but my friend Mike insisted he had to lunch there last week. A real estate agent was showing his house and he had to remove himself and his 7-month-old boxer, Buddy, from the premises. Einstein's allows diners to leash their dogs on the outside of the fence surrounding its patio.
For the hour we were there, Buddy managed repeatedly to find a way back to the dining side of the fence. As soon as he got a paw through, a panicky employee would race over and banish the creature to the other side, where he would wail in a manner I've heard Mike himself cry when he doesn't get what he wants.
The secret to dining at Einstein's is never to take the food seriously. We both ordered excellent hamburgers. Stick to burgers and salads and you'll be fine.
I don't really understand what the big deal about having a dog on a leash at a patio table is. God knows, the French don't seem to know how to eat or drink coffee without some yippy-yappy creature in their laps. Of course, in Midtown, where dogs are used as bait to pick up strangers, too many of them could turn a restaurant patio into a frantic sex scene. You can't even walk through Piedmont Park without being sniffed and wrapped in a leash by a Pomeranian belonging to a hormone-drenched cruiser.
Did I mention that I don't really like dogs?
I have found the best lunch deal in Midtown. It's at Mambo in Morningside. This Cuban restaurant is serving big plates of its excellent food for only $6.95. I've lunched there with a group of friends and Van recently and especially like the vaca frita — which Van appropriately called "fried pot roast." The arroz con pollo is an enormous portion of the Cuban classic.
Finally, I paid a follow-up visit to Jitlada, near the Tara Theater, last week with Wayne and Rose D'Agostino. This Thai restaurant serves competent but not exceptional food. The standout on the table was Wayne's fire-engine-hot squid salad. My pad Thai was very thin on shrimp and chicken, not nearly as good as I eat regularly for bargain-basement prices at The King and I at Ansley Square.
Patti Davis writes this: "Do you know of any gourmet dining groups for couples? There seem to be plenty for singles, but I'm having a tough time finding an organization for couples to meet for fine dining in restaurants or at in-home hosted dinner parties. Can you help?"
Only by printing your inquiry, Patti.
Jose Demetry breaks this news to me: "I was in France earlier this month (my native country) and as I was buying some bread at the bakery, I noticed a pastry called bostock. No kidding. The lady behind the counter told me it's a brioche with almond paste. It cost 2.30 euros. When I was growing up in France I never saw the thing, so I assume it's a fairly new invention."
Well, thank God it ain't no creampuff! And almond paste is one of my favorite substances.
Jennifer Boswell, responding to my recent column on Indian dining, wrote to recommend Chat Patti, another vegetarian spot on Woodcliff Drive. I have indeed eaten there many times and agree with her that the restaurant's bhel puri is better than you find at the otherwise incomparable Madras Saravana Bhavan.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at email@example.com.??