Chiles on chilly nights

Revisiting Agave, plus a first glimpse at Mitra

Some restaurants waver in quality from visit to visit. Some become stale even if they maintain decent quality. But a few seem to grow better every time you visit. Agave (242 Boulevard, 404-588-0006) belongs to the latter category.

This Southwestern-style restaurant is certainly the best in the Cabbagetown-Grant Park area. It opened about three years ago when Jack Sobel, formerly with Tiburon Grill and Fratelli di Napoli, took the space vacated by the deservedly short-lived Eureka. The menu actually has not changed much since the opening. But the physical appearance of the restaurant has grown more and more comfortable. A patio with pleasant landscaping was first added, and now that space has been taken over by the addition of a second dining room. The room — brick like the original dining area and free of oppressive "design" — has a large fireplace whose glow on cold nights last week made it one of the most compelling dining rooms in the city.

The other thing I immediately noticed during last week's visit was the quality of service. Where once worried waitrons warned customers about the spiciness of the food, there is now a highly professional staff. The server did not shudder when we ordered the green chile stew, an almost-fiery blend of New Mexico hatch chiles, beef tips, onions and corn. I actually like it more than the posole, which is certainly the best version of this soup I've had outside a Mexican venue in town.

I was less happy with spring rolls made with chopped shrimp and lump crabmeat. There's nothing wrong with them at all. But the flavors, despite the inclusion of serranos and a jalapeno-tomatillo salsa, are muddy.

My entree, a New Mexican rack of lamb rubbed with chile spices, was grilled and served over mashed potatoes with an intense red chile sauce. Fat grilled asparagus and corn relish (not mentioned on the menu) were also on the plate. This probably ranks as my favorite Agave dish ever. Wayne ordered pan-seared salmon over julienned squashes and carrots with a roasted red-pepper sauce that seemed bolder than the bland one used earlier. The dish was also accompanied by grilled asparagus.

The restaurant probably has the most comprehensive tequila selection in the city. It's name, after all, derives from the cactus from which everyone's favorite hallucinogenic booze is made. The bar, though small, is as convivial as the rest of the restaurant. New on Juniper

It's not my habit to go to opening nights of restaurants. I thought Mitra (818 Juniper St. 404-875-5515) had been open a week when I visited with Wayne and his mother last week. But as it turned out, Sia Moshk had to put off the opening of his new restaurant to the night we dined there. Moshk, who named his new venue after his wife, operates the very popular Sia's in Duluth.

The restaurant is located a few doors down from the defunct Cavu and across the street from Spice. It's in an old house with a cool blue fountain installed out front. The interior is festive, with orange walls, Mexican paintings, star-shaped lighting fixtures, granite tabletops and chairs that look whimsical enough to be used at the Mad Hatter's tea party. There are two dining rooms. The lower is a bit claustrophobic, so try to get a seat upstairs. I'm betting if Mitra catches on, there are going to be waits. The restaurant is not large.

The menu, prepared by Executive Chef Scott Serpas and Chef de Cuisine Geraldo Ramos, is "creative American" with Latin influences. Don't expect the Asian notes you find at Sia's. Everything we sampled was good, although you should not consider such an early experience definitive. Typically, though, things get better rather than worse after an opening night.

All of our appetizers were especially good. They included a green chile and rock shrimp chowder with coriander and Melba toast; Mediterranean mussels in a guzzling-quality habanero "V-8 broth" made on the premises; and chile-roasted shrimp over pickled chayote squash salad with a dressing laced with lemon and chile de arbol. My only suggestion is to reduce the sweetness in the salad.

Entrees were good with only one problem — a minor one. Wayne's Gulf snapper with chile escabeche, roasted in a banana leaf, was cool when it came to the table. Flavors were nonetheless terrific. Anne, Wayne's mama, ordered roasted mahi mahi with grilled vegetables and an enchilada stuffed with mahon cheese. A spare use of tomatillos lightly flavored the dish. I should confess she asked that it be prepared "not so spicy."

My own dish was my favorite: slow-roasted, boneless short ribs with grilled asparagus. It was like very good pot roast and just right for the cold night of our visit.

I heartily recommend you visit the new restaurant. The staff is friendly and anxious to hear feedback.

Here and there

I'm sorry to report the closing of two popular restaurants. Virginia's, which began life as the coolest coffeehouse to ever open in our city, moved from Virginia Avenue to Krog Street a couple of years ago. Although the owners created an immensely beautiful space, the food itself (much more ambitious than at the original location) was not up to par when it reopened. That changed this year with the hiring of Chef Claudia Nesbit. But the depressed market has taken its toll on a restaurant that was funded more with enthusiasm and artistry than capital. I hate that it's closed.

Scott Herman is closing Raging Burrito on Piedmont, across from Ansley Mall, after seven years. We can blame the same thing that caused the closing of Tortillas: saturation of the market by bland chains. Moe's has opened at both Ansley Mall and Colony Square.

In an e-mail, Herman mused, "Many Atlantans now think that if you have a lot of pop-culture paintings like Jim Hendrix and Bob Marley on your wall in every location, you have good food. It is bizarre how the generic ambience of these places makes people feel satisfied and comfortable. Raging Burrito will continue to fight the burrito chains for many years to come at our Decatur location."

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

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