Bye bye, bona fide burritos

A lament for the closing of Tortillas, plus Fishmonger

I have a confession to make. A month or so ago when I drove out to Roswell Road and ended up at Food 101, I was actually looking for Fishmonger (4969 Roswell Road, 404-459-9003). I hadn't taken the address with me, thinking I had a good sense of where it was based on a friend's directions. But I couldn't find it.

Well, I was right about its location, but didn't look hard enough. It's in the rear of the strip mall that houses Food 101 — kind of in the basement. The same strip mall, Belle Isle Square, houses an anti-aging "medical spa." Too bad it was closed. I could have used a couple injections of botox and a facial peel, not to mention a shot of testosterone to make me more aggressive when I go about this reviewing business. Right.

I'm glad I found Fishmonger. Wayne and I ate there on Easter night, so it was not crowded, although I understand it's normally a popular destination for folks in the Sandy Springs area. I can understand why. It's good. OK, it's not Fishbone, but then Fishbone closed so it could become a Ted's Montana Grill, which is roughly like closing Aria and replacing it with Houston's.

Fishmonger is good looking. There are French-themed murals on its stone-toned sponge-painted walls, a fireplace, a convivial bar, real wood tabletops and a cozy patio. Honestly, it's a bit like a fish shack with style — very comfortable.

The standard menu is rather brief but is augmented by daily specials. I started with a somewhat pricey dish of four jumbo sea scallops, seared and placed over a creamy leek sauce with the interesting addition of some apple cider jelly ($9). The scallops had that nice, slightly caramelized quality, and the sauce was zingy. I have one complaint. The scallops were garnished with sweet-potato chips. Adding some crunchiness to the dish is a good idea but the chips were not the least bit crispy. Work on 'em or kill 'em.

Wayne was excited to see a Greek salad ($6) on the menu. "Is it real?" he asked our server.

"Real?" the server replied.

"You know," he replied, nostalgic for his days in Mykonos, "is it made without lettuce?"

Indeed it was — ripe tomatoes, cucumber slices, red onions, feta and black olives marinated in a red-wine vinaigrette. I know it sounds like nothing special, but Wayne is right. It's just about impossible to get a real Greek salad, a wonderfully refreshing concoction, in our city.

Other starters include fried calamari, white wine-steamed mussels, bruschetta, a crab and shrimp cake, a daily soup (lobster bisque the day of our visit), several other salads and shrimp tempura. Prices range from $5 to $9.

For his entree, Wayne chose the day's catch — halibut — cooked in parchment ($18). It made me nostalgic for Alix Kenagy's version at the original Indigo. I have to say this was every bit as good. The fish was just right and came out of the parchment without dumping water on the plate, a real hazard of this style of cooking. It was served over a bed of onions, capers and olives — another echo of the owner's Greek nationality. Roasted potatoes and saffron rice were also on the plate.

I ordered a special — catfish fried in a coating of panko (Japanese bread crumbs) under a mango pico de gallo salsa ($16). Panko is showing up all over town these days. Chefs love the light flakes because they give fried foods much more crispiness than the usual coatings of flour or cornmeal. My catfish was killer and the salsa's fruitiness was a nice departure.

Other menu entrees here include fish and chips; a platter of fried oysters, shrimp and calamari; a popular paella; sauteed jumbo prawns; lobster fettuccine; grilled shrimp; and several meat dishes, including grilled lamb chops, a chicken breast picatta and a filet mignon. The latter is Argentine beef, which has become a bit hard to find. Prices of entrees range from $14 to $22.

We skipped dessert, there being nothing particularly unusual and we were feeling way too full to further sacrifice our comfort to knowledge of the ordinary.

A travesty of culinary justice

OK, I'm pissed. Tortillas (774 Ponce De Leon Ave., 404-892-0193) is closing May 24 after 19 years, according to owner Charlie Kerns who wrote me this e-mail:

"The burrito war has been fought and won. We didn't win it.

"Our style of labor-intensive burrito assembly makes a better burrito but alas we lost. The result, however, is not a bummer. Nineteen years is a long run and we thank Atlanta for the trip. Change is good and it gives us an opportunity to try something else.

"Our greatest regret is that corporate predatory scumbags may end up hamburgerizing the burrito biz and you won't be able to get a burrito in a place that doesn't theme you to death. Chipotle hasn't even gotten here yet. Carne McAsada, anyone?"

Charlie, who also own Eats and the Local, has better feelings about this than I do. I wrote last July about my preference for Tortillas over any of the carbon-copy burrito joints like Willy's and Moe's and got slammed by quite a few e-mails which only deepened my depression over Tortillas' fading fortune. The difference in the quality of, say, Tortillas' red beans over those you get at Willy's is so conspicuous I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would favor the latter. I had many a lunch at Tortillas years ago with Watershed's Executive Chef Scott Peacock and his meal often consisted solely of several servings of those beans. (Strange: Scott and I also used to hang at the Royal Bagel, the city's best bagel maker. It's closed too. Maybe we curse restaurants.)

What Tortillas calls "chopped pork" is actually a version of carnitas better than you find at the average authentic taqueria around town. And I can't imagine life without my favorite menu item — plump shrimp folded into a burrito with red beans, guacamole (one of the city's best) and green sauce (the city's best, period). A quesadilla made with a roasted chili pepper has been my other fave here.

But nostalgia makes me regret Tortillas' closing too. Like Fellini's Pizza, it was in its early years a kind of boho hangout for Emory students, artists and wannabe rockers. Its original location, a few doors down, hosted a regular event called the Mud Shack, organized by a former CL editorial employee, John Thomas. It was one of the city's first venues to host performance art as well as music that was often very challenging.

Tortillas has maintained its grungy ambience, but this cannot be blamed for its closing. Eats, down the street, has the same kind of ambience and remains very popular with its dirt-cheap menu of pastas and chicken. No, I'm guessing, as Charlie suggests, the culprit is saturation of the market by corporate venders who have turned the California-style burrito into another fast-food product, meaning it has become standardized to the tastes of the lowest common denominator. You can feel quite exotic ordering a kitchen-sink burrito at one of the corporate joints. But when you bite into it, what you usually get is the homogenized taste of familiarity.

Some days, I just hate everyone. Our tastes have gone to Taco Bell.

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

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