Carb your enthusiasm
Balance opens, and a follow-up on the Tortillas crisis
The concept sounds kooky: a restaurant where diners can design the balance of proteins and carbs in their meals. At the same time, it's compelling. Unless I'm eating for review, I try to stick to a high-protein diet whereas I know other people, runners in particular, who want carbs and more carbs. It's hard as hell to stick to any kind of food plan in the average restaurant.
I expected Balance (980 Piedmont Ave., 404-870-9881) to be little more than a marketing gimmick on the cutting edge of Cuisine Birkenstock — gussied-up tofu and quinoa for the wasp-waisted Midtown set. I was wrong.
Brothers Sean and Gilbert Yeremyan, who also own nearby Gilbert's Mediterranean Cafe, have transformed the old Big Red Tomato space into a fetching restaurant with white-washed walls and blue-mosaic table tops whose color echoes Mykonos. The pleasant patio will cause you to rub elbows with people you've known for years — like the ubiquitous Uri Vaknin, former activist turned art dealer turned realtor, who whispered to me, "This is really good, although as far as the concept goes, basically, it's just an a la carte menu."
Sort of. Wayne and I visited during the restaurant's first week in business. The dinner menu is divided mainly into appetizers, salads, proteins, vegetables, grains and cheese. And, yes, you do order a la carte, but this is some serious food. The chef is Edgar Cruz, formerly sous chef at Spice, and his agenda is healthy, wholesome food but not the punitive fare of clench-fisted vegans. A starter like grilled octopus and squid ($8) is served in a big white bowl with a caponata of sweet peppers. Delicious as it is, I confess I stole the lemon from Wayne's water glass to give the dish a shot of acidity. Then I discovered a generous number of capers in the bottom of the bowl. Mix 'em up and you'll be happy.
Salmon tartare is chopped and formed into two soft, rich cakes served with fingerling potatoes, chives and creme fraiche ($8). You'll also find scallops with seaweed salad, grilled quail with arugula and free-form ricotta ravioli with oven-dried tomato and basil oil. A warm vegetable succotash starter ($5) is also available on the lunch menu. Mainly corn, with finely chopped squash and some fresh peas, and topped with a crispy sheet of parmesan, it's all about spring.
You can select your entree — your protein — from animal flesh or vegetarian sources. I chose lamb loin ($14). You also choose your cooking method here: grilled, roasted or seared for meat and poultry with a steamed choice substituting for the roasted one in fish dishes. Then you pick your sauce. For fish, you can have house vinaigrette, citrus sweet and sour or yogurt-dill. Meat or poultry sauces include brown chicken, bordelaise or consomme. I picked the bordelaise. Then I picked a side carb — a risotto rice cake ($3.50, like all carbs). Whew. You can see how this becomes rather like a cafeteria and I couldn't help wondering if Cruz doesn't sometimes find himself having to send dishes to the table with horrifying combinations. But everything I ordered rocked: the big portion of sliced medium-rare lamb was served over the risotto cake and the bordelaise was dense and sharp.
Wayne chose a vegetarian protein — seared tofu with red peanut sauce ($9) — with his fave, broccoli, added to the bowl. Very nice. Other vegetarian options include chickpea puree with lemon confit, sauteed tri-color lentils with sorrel and baked borlotti beans with cipollini onions and honey-thyme.
The gimmick breaks down a bit at lunch, when a more usual menu of sandwiches and salads is offered. The flank steak wrap is luscious, by the way. Cruz wraps slices of rare beef with a few strawberries and roasted nuts into a big tortilla.
Complaints? My only one is that while a carb eater can economically combine different dishes here, a protein eater cannot. Sean Yeremyan told me that the restaurant might offer half- portions. But, honestly, Balance turns out to be a more serious than gimmicky restaurant and, for the present, I wouldn't change a thing. Oh. Our amusing server Kindle is Waitron of the Week.
Bang (1126 Euclid Ave., 404-223-5039) continues to be Little Five Points' most "serious" restaurant and a recent dinner there was mainly successful.
We ordered almost everything from the specials menu and the stand-out for me was four grilled lamb chops served over organic green lentils ($18.95). My next favorite was a pasta dish, fire-breathing shrimp, that Wayne ordered as a starter from the regular menu. It's cavatappi with a bunch of fat grilled shrimp in a very hot — beyond-fra diavolo hot — tomato sauce.
My starter was bruschetta with melted goat cheese and a "tumble" of sliced button mushrooms sauteed in Pinot Gris butter sauce ($5.95). A drizzle of white truffle oil gave the dish a bit of a punch, but it begged for more contrast. My least favorite dish was Wayne's entree, salmon roasted on a cedar plank ($16.95). This technique, borrowed from Native Americans, has never thrilled me, but then I grew up playing in my mother's cedar trousseau chest. The fish itself was fine, actually, but its soy-ginger glaze was unforgivably sweet even under a heap of chives.
Cameli's (699 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-249-9020) continues to serve interesting pizzas in its Ford Factory Square location but the restaurant is looking quite ragged these days. It needs paint, it needs a new counter.
The aesthetic decline has an explanation. Owner George Cameli put most of his energy the last few years into his wonderful restaurant in East Atlanta. That, I'm embittered to say, closed to become a vegan cafe.
The pizza menu at Cameli's is a bit unusual in that you can choose your own sauce — tomato, garlic, basil pesto or, my favorite, sun-dried tomato. I love the ultra-thin crust here, only $4.50 for a small pie to which you add your choice of ingredients. Recently, I constructed one with my favorite sauce, anchovies, capers and roasted red peppers. I don't know where else in our city you can make such a pie. Wayne chose one of the kitchen-sink combos, the Papa C, that includes pepperoni, the restaurant's homemade Italian sausage, red onions, mushrooms and black olives ($7). Mine was better.
My only complaint, besides the decaying appearance, is the restaurant's fondness for those tasteless black olives. They show up in too many dishes.
More on Tortillas
I don't think in 15 years I've received such a deluge of hair-pulling e-mail and phone calls as I have since reporting that Tortillas will be closing May 25 after 19 years. One person is even eating daily at the restaurant and journaling his experience. I can't possibly publish all the e-mails here. My temptation is to print them and tape them to the restaurant's windows in an effort to convince owner Charlie Kerns to change his mind.
Many readers have asked for Charlie's e-mail which he has given me permission to print: email@example.com. A rumor is circulating that Tortillas will become "an upscale pool hall," as one eye-rolling employee told me last week. But Charlie says he hasn't decided for sure yet what to do.
I do need to make one correction. Rodger Brown, formerly an editor at CL and best remembered for inaugurating "The Blotter," which he also illustrated each week, wrote to correct my spelling of The Mudd Shack. It was the performance cafe that he and another editor, John Thomas, who also worked at Tortillas, hosted now and then at the restaurant. Rodger, hungry for credit for that is the most with which former CL employees can reward themselves, produced the logo art for the cafe.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.