Culinary fences make good neighbors

Sala's food falters but draws crowds, Tiburon Grille offers solid American next door

Fifth Group Restaurants, the company that operates South City Kitchen, the Food Studio and La Tavola, has to have the keenest eye for the trendy in town. When New Southern Cuisine was hot, they opened South City. When fusion cooking was big, they opened the Food Studio and when Italian was the rage they opened La Tavola.

Now, they've jumped on the tapas and Latino bandwagon with another venue, Sala (1186 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-7203). Located in the building vacated by Camille's, Sala appears, within a few weeks, to have already become a favorite among the Virginia-Highland and Midtown set. You'll certainly need a reservation if the crowds I encountered last weekend continue.

Just as at every other Fifth Group restaurant, Style — let's capitalize it — drenches Sala, which means "living room" in Spanish. Maybe your living room looks like this. Mine doesn't. True, Sala is mercifully free of the usual kitsch to suggest you are in a restaurant featuring Mexican cuisine. But it's a bit frio for a sala. As usual, Fifth Group has taken a minimalist approach that accents the architectural features of the interior — varying textures and materials, mainly cream-colored, with a ceiling full of white paper lanterns punctuated by three red ones. A few splashes of color and some subtle tile work evoke a pomo Mejico. It's very nice. It's just not warm at all.

The idea is that the sleek stage is a fine setting for dramatic food. Nice idea, but risky. If the food doesn't measure up, the effect is rather like watching a kindergarten pageant in an opera house. And, I'm sorry to say, that's a bit what my experience was like. I hasten to note that the restaurant is brand new and was immediately slammed with crowds, so it could not possibly be operating at its best. On the other hand, my usual experience in Fifth Group restaurants is that they are often wildly inconsistent in their quality.

The menu is divided into antojitos — Mexico's equal to Spain's tapas — and entrees. The antojitos are not cheap. So don't think you're going to stop by here and graze as you would at Eclipse di Luna on a broad selection of inexpensive tapas. Most range around $7 but many are more. Wayne and I decided to order two bandejas — one assortment of antojitos and another of entree samples. There are two of each available. We chose the Veracruzana assortment of antojitos ($18 for two, $36 for four) and the Oaxaca tray of entrees ($32 or $64).

Both assortments were very hit or miss. Enmoladas, flour tortillas filled with cheese and dipped in dark mole, were simple and satisfying. In fact, I give chef Nestor Gomez credit for this mole — bitter, sweet, complex — and most any dish featuring it will satisfy you. For example on the entree tray, the pork loin rubbed with dark mole was by far the best dish.

Another mole, a red one popular in Oaxaca, turns up in a chicken empanada. It's not as deeply flavored but works well with piping hot empanadas made of fresh cornmeal. A cheese chile relleno, however, falls flat — and we received one on each plate. They reminded me far too much of the Tex-Mex versions I used to eat in Houston, over-cooked, with unpleasant breading and congealing cheese. Maybe the picadillo-stuffed one, available a la carte, is better.

Ceviche, on the appetizer plate, was a waste of space. It was mainly a couple of dollops of avocado with a few nondescript pieces of lime-marinated seafood. Of remaining entrees we sampled, the chicken with green mole was acceptable but I've tasted many better versions in our own city. The unforgivable entree platter was an oversized tamal filled with chorizo, almonds and raisins. The filling, little as there was, was fine, but the tamal itself was grotesquely undercooked.

The entree platter came with a side of refried beans and fried plantains. The beans were utterly tasteless — so unpleasant, so obviously dumped on the table as a perfunctory gesture, that they should disappear. The fried bananas were glutinous and nearly as congealed as the beans.

You can start with a basket of chips here and three competent homemade salsas ($3.95). The verde is far too sweet but the pasilla tomatillo is smoky and addictive. The allegedly hot red guajillo is not.

I suggest you order a la carte when you visit. I am guessing that ordering the bandejas, where so much is being dumped on a tray at once, was a mistake. There are, in any case, more interesting entrees, like lamb cooked in guajillo sauce, shrimp in chipotle sauce and a steak in that excellent dark mole. Most entrees are under $15.

Service at the restaurant, by the way, is excellent, some of the best I've ever seen in a new restaurant.

br>?Right next door
Wayne and I could not get a table when we first visited Sala. Well, we weren't willing to wait the hour to 90 minutes being quoted. Do you people really wait outside restaurants this long? I'd rather eat a radish over the sink than loiter 90 minutes on a sidewalk.

So, turned away, we walked next door to Tiburon Grille (1190 N. Highland, 404-892-2393), where a table was available, probably only because we were so early. A reservation is usually necessary here too.

Tiburon has had quite a history. Its name derives from the Marin County town near San Francisco as homage, I assume, to the California cuisine that was so popular when it opened. Over the years, it seems to have waxed and waned in popularity and to have succumbed now and then to a tedious trendiness.

But somewhere in the last few years, it has settled into being a completely reliable purveyor of straightforward American cuisine. Entrees feature a heavy Southern accent. There's not a touch of weirdness on the menu — unless you count the ostrich — and I've never had a bad meal here. Service is always top-rate and the restaurant is convivial — publike — without raucousness.

I started with venison chili ($7), a huge bowl full of freshly ground venison, caramelized onions and a chili sauce that, frankly, I thought was a bit strong. Not that I didn't eat every drop, but I also wish the meat were a bit less ground up.

Wayne's ginger-curry crab cakes ($8.50) were the better choice. Scallions and basil, as well as ginger, seasoned the cakes, which were served in a lemongrass coconut curry sauce.

Among entrees, my usual choice here is the fried chicken breast, cooked in a cast-iron skillet and served with collards and garlic-mashed potatoes. At $9.50, it is a bargain and certainly some of the best fried chicken in our city, owing to its traditional cooking. I do wish they'd offer more than a breast, though.

I actually did not order the chicken this meal and ordered grilled shrimp with Stilton cheese grits ($15.50). The grits were also topped with thin slices of andouille sausage and onions sauteed in balsamic vinegar. The vinegar, which becomes sweet when reduced, added a kick to a dish that's become popular on lots of menus around town.

Wayne, carb-loving Wayne, ordered fettuccine topped with chicken breast, andouille sausage, spinach and mushrooms ($15). A garlic and sherry cream sauce drenched the noodles. Nice comfort food.

You'll also find shrimp and crab etouffee, honey-lacquered duck, baked Irish salmon under cheese souffle, an ancho-pepper filet mignon and wild striped bass cooked Provencal-style.

I suspect Sala's overflow crowds will be knocking on Tiburon's doors, perhaps giving the restaurant renewed popularity. The irony is that the better meal, for the present, is at Tiburon.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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