Large-scale disappointment

New kids Santino's di Roma and Tijuana Garage need to think smaller

Sigh. Turn the page. Don't read this. It's not going to be pretty. And it won't tell you about anything you want to eat.

I've visited two new restaurants this week — large-scale expensive undertakings — and both were enormously disappointing. In fact, I can't even imagine that the owners of Santino's di Roma and Tijuana Garage have tasted their own food. How bad were our meals? They were so bad that Wayne, who will eat Cap'n Crunch for dinner and smile, grimaced throughout them. A human barometer of pleasantry in most situations, he turned into Medusa before my very eyes, freezing my jaw in place so that I could barely chew. I ate with great effort that you might not.

Let's begin with Santino's (230 10th St., 404-892-9004). This restaurant has been opened by the same people who operate the trendy and inconsistent Cherry and Twisted Taco. They have taken a space that has failed two earlier occupants — a large, two-level dining room with a huge curved staircase that only a drag queen could descend without feeling self-conscious. To their credit, they have warmed the chilly space with mahogany and chandeliers (instead of spotlights). There are black-and-white photos and a fresco of vineyards. Red-checked tablecloths, weirdly topped with white butcher paper, let you know this is an intentionally retro Italian-American restaurant.

By that I mean the effort is to evoke New York-style Italian dining of the middle of the last century — the kind of place where Frank Sinatra might have dined with a mafia boss. But I want to know why. In a city that has become accustomed to authentic Italian cuisine, why serve Italian-American food smack-dab in the middle of Midtown in sight of The Big Red Tomato, which does a much better job?

The menu is huge. You get the usual appetizers. You got your soups, your salads. You got your vegetable side orders, you got your pizzas, your pastas, your steaks, your veal, your chicken, your seafood. I warn you: Prices are high. The fine print explains why. Portions are large and any dish is meant to serve two or three. Thus, you have to spend a lot of money to get a good sampling at the table. Cool marketing technique, eh?

We decided to start with a pizza — one made with wild mushrooms ($13.95). I am seriously doubting that the mushrooms, including white buttons, are "wild." The tasteless shrooms, also including a scattering of portabellas and shiitakes, were on a Pizza Hut-style thick crust and the main flavor was from the strong tomato sauce. We ate two slices and boxed the rest.

My entree choice produced one of the most bizarre experiences I've had in a restaurant in years. I ordered veal saltimbocca ($19.95), one of my favorite dishes, which I routinely order to test an Italian restaurant's competency. I was presented a huge platter of what palpably tasted, with its heavy marinara and thick breading, like bad veal parmigiana. I told our waiter Brent: "This is not veal saltimbocca. This is veal parmigiana. I ain't eating it."

Brent, herewith declared waitron of the week, explained that he had not eaten the dish and wasn't sure what it was supposed to look like. He was furiously apologetic, rushed off to the kitchen and returned minutes later with a new platter. Guess what I was presented? Veal parmigiana into which some prosciutto was inserted between the meat and cheese.

"Look," I said, pointing at the menu, "this looks nothing like what's even described here — sauteed, lightly breaded veal, over sauteed spinach with a veal sauce." Indeed, saltimbocca usually features mozzarella or fontina cheese, instead of the provolone used here. It is often not breaded at all and I have never had it served with marinara.

A manager, who had been informed, came to the table looked at the plate with a sidelong glance and said, "That's what they are calling veal saltimbocca, huh?"

"Uh, yeah," I said, "that's what they are calling veal saltimbocca."

I picked at the new version of veal parmigiana, pulling the prosciutto out, avoiding the tough veal, the repulsively thick breading and cheese. The manager did deduct the cost of the dish from our bill, but, my God, I have never in memory had a kitchen remake a dish and still completely miss the mark.

Wayne ordered the day's special — a very un-Italian piece of filleted trout prepared Cajun-style, meaning it was blackened with some herbs (insanely overpriced at $19.95). Compared to the travesty I was served, it was delectable. But in fact it was lackluster and overcooked. Nor was it any kind of portion that would encourage sharing at the table. I'll leave it to readers to determine if this sharing scheme holds up elsewhere on the menu, especially with the $30 steaks.

Forgive me, but we couldn't face dessert. Absolutely the high point of the meal was Brent, our server, an Emory student and young idealist who is applying for the Teach for America program that will land him in the inner city. I felt sorry that he had to deliver such dreadful food to the table. Wayne summed it up perfectly at meal's end: "The water was pretty good."

I'd love to report a better experience at Tijuana Garage in Little Five Points. This very strange restaurant has occupied the pleasant space adjoining Front Page News on Moreland Avenue.

It doesn't do too bad a job evoking Tijuana, if you've been to that weird town across the border from San Diego. Half-Mexican, half-American, Tijuana is a place to sin and eat bad food. Outside the big bar, which should be the place's biggest draw, there's no sin, unless you count the food. The walls are amusingly painted with signs that advertise oil changes, weddings, bail bonds, tire repair and divorces. Happily there's no relentless mariachi music, no beggars and nobody pissing on the sidewalk as you always see in Tijuana.

Here, too, the menu says plates are designed for sharing. Not really. The portions are average and prices are low. Here, it's just a way of suggesting you buy lots of food. In any case, if our meal was exemplary of the general quality, nobody will want to share your food out of any motivation except the hope that it's better than their own.

Bitchy, aren't I?

But God help me. A salsa trio ($3.95) turned up a bland, vaguely sour tomatillo, a roasted tomato version that tasted like spicy sweet ketchup and a pico de gallo whose tomatoes were mealy. Ceviche ($6.95) had, as Wayne put it, "textural problems." That is to say the shrimp, scallops and mahi mahi in the goblet in which it was served had probably sat way too long in their lime marinade.

Entrees were even worse. Grilled chicken enchiladas ($7.95) featured dry chunks of tasteless chicken wrapped in a tortilla, a drop of chile sauce and some tasteless cheese. My flautas, three little greasy cigarette-sized things (for sharing?), were filled with chorizo I could barely taste, some cilantro and jalapeños. They were served with another tasteless queso sauce. The best thing on the plate was the rice and black beans.

I also sampled, out of morbid curiosity, a bowl of creamed corn ($1.95). It tasted like spicy baby food. There was not a solid kernel of corn in the bowl.

For dessert, at our server's suggestion, we shared two fruit empañadas ($4.95). They are all cream cheese, with some pureed fruit stirred in. Mainly, though, the fried pies strike you with their greasiness. "The waitress was real nice," Wayne said.

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

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