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Hosp-itality, Southwestern style

Husband and wife team reopen the former Gringo's space as Asada

Michael Hosp, the affable chef of the new Asada (1238 DeKalb Ave., 404-522-8666), delivered our entrees to the table and lingered a moment.

"Congratulations on opening," I said. "Where did you work before?"

"All over the place," he said. "I worked with Heinz Schwab at Hedgerose Heights years ago and I was the opening chef at Toulouse."

"Oh, that explains it," I said, knowing that Toulouse was opened by Karen Hilliard, who also owns Georgia Grille, which specializes in Southwestern cuisine. "So you learned to cook this kind of food from Karen?"

"Well, some, but mainly I got interested in it in New Zealand where my wife and I were thinking of moving."

"Um, OK," I said. I suddenly felt like I was talking to my mother who, years ago, told me she had eaten remarkable food in Jamaica. I expressed surprise that she liked such an alien cuisine. "Oh, not that!" she said. "We ate in an Italian restaurant every night in the hotel. I'll never be satisfied with ordinary Italian again."

However Hosp came by his appreciation of Southwestern cooking, I'm glad to see him take over the old location of Gringo's. He and wife Liz Callison, also a veteran of Toulouse, have improved the building's dowdy appearance without sacrificing the requisite funk appeal to attract diners from nearby Little Five Points. The space has been opened up and painted in mild reds and terra cottas. A sparkly mosaic bar seats eight and the dining room accommodates about 40. The pleasant patio fits about the same number.

The menu is not strictly Southwestern in that it is not border cuisine. Instead, it's a variety of cuisines featuring prominent use of chilies and other Southwestern ingredients. Most of it succeeds fairly well, although cohesion and focus are often missing. Appetizers, which are pricey given their quantity (most are about $7), include seven miserably small oysters with a head-clearing, addictive mignonette made with tequila and guajillo chilies. Three jumbo shrimp are flawlessly fried in panko but served over a horseradish marmalade which is a great idea but too thin to adhere to the shrimp. In all honestly, I barely tasted the horseradish, getting far more fruity notes.

Entrees were better. My thinly sliced flank steak, grilled medium rare, was in a chipotle sauce scattered with mushroom-pepper relish. It was served with a chile relleno made of a fried poblano pepper oozing goat cheese. The relleno is also available as a side item, and next visit I will order it as my appetizer. It was my favorite dish.

Wayne ordered cornmeal-dusted tilapia with wilted spinach over smoked cheese grits with charred-tomato pico de gallo. It was kind of a snoozer, reflecting a general problem here: too much caution with seasonings so that flavors get easily muddy.

Side dishes, alas, fared worst of all. A corn fritter was tepid and limp but full of corn kernels and would have tasted good hot. Mac and cheese with smoked-poblano goat cheese was completely bland — blander than the ordinary cheddar variety.

Desserts include a lightly textured flan — Hosp reduces the usual eggs — and a "pop tart" that should be avoided. It features peach compote encased in puff pastry that can't be eaten without a knife.

Hosp is certainly capable of better focusing his cooking. The restaurant has been open about six weeks. I'll return in a month for an update.

Dude, where's my chairman?

As soon as I entered Tin Drum Cafe (88 Fifth St., 404-881-1368), I observed something I consider both cool and disturbing. As you enter, there's a huge super-graphic that is actually the cover of a 10-year-old CD, Tin Drum, by the U.K. group Japan. The CD is an amazing meditation on the communist Chinese Cultural Revolution and the upper left corner of the cover graphic includes a picture of Chairman Mao, which has been erased from the restaurant's rendering. I guess the idea was to avoid rocking the Techies' political boats.

Thinking maybe I had somehow overlooked Chairman Mao's mug in the restaurant's mural, I called the restaurant and when I asked an employee to double-check, she assured me there was no such image. I asked her why the restaurant had erased it and she said: "I'm sorry, sir, I'm not answering any more questions." Click.

Geez!

Anyway, Tin Drum is a very cool little cafe offering a variety of Asian dishes. We sampled a lot of food and the only thing I explicitly disliked was the pad Thai. It has too many noodles and not enough bean sprouts to break up their texture. More lime juice and some sweet notes would improve the bowl. I much preferred a bowl of rice topped with curried, lightly fried chicken and fresh spinach leaves.

My favorite of all was a wrap of Indian-style bread enclosing hot, crispy shrimp tempura with romaine lettuce, served with a creamy miso sauce. Spring rolls — whether all-veggie or containing curried chicken — were fresh from the fryer without a spot of grease. The only one I didn't like was the crab and cream cheese version that tasted like an Applebee's starter. A basil roll is as good as any you'll find at a Chamblee Vietnamese restaurant. You can select from a variety of sauces for the rolls.

Noodle shops haven't caught on in a big way in our city but this is by far the best I've encountered that caters to round-eyed folks.

Readers' recommendations

Sidebar, (79 Poplar St., in the ground floor of the former club Karma, 404-588-1850), is acquiring a downtown following and picking up awards from online publications, according to a reader. The specialty there is Cuban sandwiches featuring pork roasted on the premises and black beans and rice made from scratch. All sandwiches are pressed on a grill, so they are crunchy, with the meats hot and the cheese melted.

Another reader recommends Geegaws Eatery in Pine Lake: "The food is extremely fresh, portions are generous, the staff friendly, and, best of all, it has the most reasonable prices in metro Atlanta."

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



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