Fire" starters"

Fuego treads familiar tapas ground; plus, a revisit to Woodfire Grill

Let's pat ourselves on the back. When Atlanta catches a food trend, it does not let go until the last glob of mashed potatoes with white truffle oil, or fanciful mac and cheese, disappears from the planet. Remember the alfalfa sprout? The kiwi? Pasta — gasp! — extruded on the premises? Wither, one wonders, will tapas go by this time next year?

These plates, inspired by the Spanish favorite of light grazing dishes, are the latest trend to grab us by the throat. Soon McDonald's will be selling McTapas. Have you tried the tapas in the supermarket? Look for the woman in a hairnet with an electric frying pan begging you to try toothpick-speared "tapas" like fried breakfast sausage made from meat-free lawn clippings.

The latest tapas venue to open is Fuego (1136 Crescent Ave., 404-389-0660), cousin to a popular restaurant in Alpharetta. It's located in a plain-Jane apartment building that has been home to a succession of mediocre and quickly faltering restaurants.

The interior is scary. I told my companion Ken McBride that it reminded me of railroad car bound for Hades. It's a long rectangular restaurant, too dark, with splashes of red. The glare from a kitchen window breaks up the darkness but too starkly, like a 100-watt bulb swinging from a cord in a prison isolation cell. The patio, when the weather is warm, is a far better seating choice.

The food is inconsistent. One thing is certain: The tapas are better than the entrees, but nowhere near the quality you'll find at Eclipse di Luna, Twist or Noche. Calamari is tender but its beer batter is limp. A poblano pepper is stuffed with an acceptable version of ropa vieja, but the dish, grilled rather than fried, lacks the contrasts of a real chile relleno. A special of goat cheese layered with squash suffers the same kind of problem. Flavors, picked apart, are good but muddled when taken together. Your best bet is a simple dish of sliced chorizo sausage with two cheeses — wine-soaked chevre and cured manchego — or a plate of sliced Serrano ham.

We all understand why tapas are being pushed on us all over town, yes? Taken individually at $4 or $5 each, they seem inexpensive, but curiosity and hunger, especially when lubricated by booze, rapidly create a big bill. You can avoid that by ordering entrees here. But avoid the paella. The "savory saffron rice" is tasteless and the seafood and meats are mainly dried niblets.

Ken's dish, a roasted butterflied porkchop, was much better despite its gray sheen. Served with a shrimp-and-ancho cream sauce, it was plunked over mashed yucca. Ken, who puts shoes on ladies feet at Bloomie's, declared it "fabulous."

Tapas are meant to awaken the palate. They are nothing if they don't feature very clear flavors and textures. Fuego's chef needs to pay more attention to the way she puts things together.Woodfire update

It's been quite a while since I dined at Woodfire Grill (1782 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-347-9055). Chef/owner Mike Tuohy is a San Francisco transplant who was among the first in our city to feature artisan ingredients and local organic produce at his original restaurant, Chef's Cafe. He continues that at Woodfire, where there is also an accent on fire-roasted and grilled dishes.

I dined there last week with my friend Randy, who lived a few years in Paris and insisted we order the rillettes of rabbit. Rillettes are fatty, with a texture between a pate and a puree, meant to be spread on toast. Randy said Woodfire's was good enough to make him nostalgic for the version made by friends who lived in the country outside Paris.

Funny thing, I leaped at the brandade, a cod puree that always reminds me of one of the most perfect days of my life, sitting in Nice looking over the ocean, eating the stuff that tasted like pure sunlight and sea-breeze. Woodfire's is stuffed into roasted peppers — a nice touch, though I longed for the pure stuff.

We both had fish for entrees. For Randy: pan-roasted striped bass with roasted cauliflower, caramelized onions and slightly sour Gaeta olives with sundried tomatoes. For me: wood-grilled Yellow fin tuna over a lentil ragout with tangy peperonata and olive tapenade.

Following our entrees, we had a plate of the restaurant's artisan cheeses that left us too sated for dessert.

If you have not visited Woodfire recently, it's time to return. It is certainly one the best restaurants in town. Although it certainly has a pleasant if low-key ambiance, the main emphasis here is Tuohy's passion for the food itself. Few chefs in town can match him in that respect.

Here and there

Speaking of trends, few are as persistent and welcome as our city's love of Thai cuisine. But why does the Royal Orchid at Midtown Promenade serve such consistently boring food? The staff must ask each diner 10 times if they want their food to be "not so spicy." And even when you wave them away, you get Gerbers-version Thai.

Wayne and I followed a somnambulant meal there the next day at inconspicuous, dirt-cheap Little Bangkok on Cheshire Bridge. We ate a whole fish cooked with sinus-clearing ginger, along with a lobster tail served in a sauce of pureed crab and eggs. Is there really such a difference in the culinary adventurousness of people on Cheshire Bridge and Monroe Drive?...

Brad Lapin and I lunched at Prime last week. Brad had the salmon club sandwich without the bacon (OK), and I had very good roasted chicken. Our server, Jamie of Alabama, is herewith declared Waitron of the Week for his dry wit and his attentive service....

Complaint: Espresso is not a luxury. I am very sick of ending meals in restaurants, ordering a dopio macchiato (which I invariably have to explain how to make) and then being presented a bill in excess of $5. One restaurant, which will go nameless for the present, had the nerve to charge me almost $8 — about the same price as my companion's port. Get real!

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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