Noche's new niche

Plus corporate Moe's moves into Ansley Mall

Tom Catherall is certainly on a roll. There was a bit of eye-rolling among foodies when he announced plans to open the gargantuan Twist at Phipps Plaza earlier this year. It was hard to imagine that he could serve quality food on such an enormous scale. But, by assembling some heavy talent, including Nancy Delgado Mathews of Eclipse di Luna, and focusing on small plates, he has indeed succeeded.

Another Catherall restaurant, Noche (1000 Virginia Ave., 404-815-9155), has recently received a menu update that may turn the restaurant into the best tapas venue in the city. My server Allison, waitron of the week, explained to me that Catherall made a recent trip to Barcelona and came back fired up to re-focus Noche. Although Mathews, who turned Eclipse into a paradise for tapas lovers before leaving for Twist, had very little to do with Noche's new menu, some of her dishes are on the menu here. But the actual menu was designed by Noche's chef of several years, Julio Castillo, and Catherall.

Noche is a convivial space for tapas-style dining. It's as crowded and noisy as a Madrid bar. It's not a place for heavy conversation and once you surrender to the din of the lubricated Va-Hi crowd, you'll have a good time. We sat on the balcony out back, passing the time amid the jet engine-decibel sound watching a couple down muchas margaritas and whine that the menu had changed. "Some customers are complaining we've changed the menu," Allison told me, "but most people really like it."

The menu, of course, is not thoroughly Spanish. The restaurant continues to say it prepares "bold Southwest cuisine," but in truth, it's become more authentically Mexican as well as Spanish. You spend either $3, $4 or $5 for each plate and most have three servings. We didn't eat a dish we didn't like. A few dishes, such as the spare ribs marinated in ancho adobo, were served tepid when we would have preferred them hotter, but it's a very small complaint.

Probably my favorite dish was white anchovies on toast with an onion-heavy salsa — something I eat almost daily when I'm in Spain. The fried potatoes with a roasted-pepper dip are also totally true to Spain. Crab and chorizo sausage balls are tasty oddities served with a roasted tomato sauce. Shredded beef — basically barbacoa — is stuffed in a quesadilla and served with generous servings of salsa and guac. A seared tuna steak with a yellow mole is one of the menu's more creative dishes, though I'd like an accompaniment other than mashed potatoes.

One of Mathew's dishes, slightly tweaked, that I love here is sauteed spinach with sundried cranberries and pine nuts. There's the classic serrano ham, here served with roasted pepper salsa and olives. I loved it but it cried out for some slices of manchego or a shot of vinegar in the salsa. The cheese plate itself features three rather mild Spanish cheeses with dates and apple slices. It can serve as your dessert, though the restaurant retains its original dessert menu. I ordered the "tres leches latte" — complete overkill. Wayne and I agreed we hadn't been so stuffed after a meal in months. And, how cool, we spent barely $40 between the two of us.

Corporate Ansley

Ansley Mall used to be unique in town for its mainly local merchants but it becomes increasingly corporate. Yes, I hang out and write at Starbucks there a lot, so I'm not exempting myself from the seduction of the easy comforts of corporate venues.

Besides, it's an oversimplification to trash all corporate names. For example, the Baskin-Robbins franchise that was recently kicked out of the mall by a jack-up in rent was run by a lovely Indian family who over many years had come to know their clientele personally. Starbucks, though not a local franchise, similarly has a friendly staff that doesn't turn over every week.

Replacing Baskin-Robbins is yet another Moe's Southwest Grill franchise (1544 Piedmont Ave., 404-879-9663). Maybe it too will take on a personal touch, but it will have to be something akin to free sex with hot people to redeem the food. Everything about the place is creepy. Its flier describes the menu: "Nothing fancy, just names that make Moe laugh." Thus the three tacos have allusions to sex: "The Full Monty," "The Other Lewinsky," "The Ugly Naked Guy." Well, I almost bust a gut laughing over that.

It's hard to find anything here that isn't gunked up with bad yellow cheese, lettuce and sour cream. When I ordered the Triple Lindy, the counter guy immediately threw lettuce into it, even though I chose it specifically to avoid lettuce and sour cream. He nicely started over but the result was grim: tiny portion of grilled steak, a lot of rice, some red beans and a ribbon of guac. Is it horrible? No. It just is. Totally bland. The existential burrito. Sartre says: It is what it is.

Look. Drive two miles down Cheshire Bridge to El Molino and get some real Mexican food with character. Price is no excuse. El Molino is much cheaper.

Reader recommendations

Miriam Benitez, a student of circus arts, writes to recommend Los Pinos in Grant Park, across from Urban Gardner on Boulevard. I've eaten there frequently, Miriam, and especially like the mole when it's available. Miriam's fave is the chicken soup. ...

Susan E. Moss writes to inform me that Angel Sutor, the chef at St. Agnes Tea Garden (R.I.P.) has resurfaced at the Thinking Man Tavern, 537 W. Howard Ave. in Decatur. I can't wait to visit. ...

Attention, frozen custard lovers. Rick has found the stuff in Conyers. That's where the Virgin Mary hangs out, so it should be good enough for you. The name is Fuzzy's. Rick writes directions: Take I-20 east to main Conyers exit (82). Go right about 7.5 miles. You'll see a small strip center on left in front of a big new Kroger. Fuzzy's is there. ...

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

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