What a friend we have in tapas

Che opens in Buckhead, plus a revisit to Sala

I have just located a culinary history text from the future. Turning to its pages on Atlanta, I find this:

"With the arrival of the millennium, Atlanta found itself in the throes of an obsession with tapas. Where once the city's diners feasted on big plates of fried chicken, now they gave their hearts and souls to plates of food whose deceptively low prices, coupled with very small portions, allowed restaurateurs to cash in on the delusion of light eating. By the middle of the millennium's first decade, the passion for tapas had reached the Piccadilly cafeterias and inspired McDonald's to produce a super-downsized Happy Meal of delicacies such as flattened and shaved pickles with crumbled ground beef enriched with trans-fats and garnished with a sombrero-clad action figure of Ronald McDonald."

OK. Let me come out and say it. I'm sick of tapas. The novelty wore off when the damn things became unavoidable. In many Atlanta venues, they have no relation to their Spanish origin, either stylistically or content-wise, but are instead a marketing ploy. Sure, there's something to be said for the diner having the freedom to construct his own palette of noshes and nibbles. But even the Spanish don't regard tapas as a substitute for a full meal orchestrated by a good chef.

Nor do I want to give the impression that there aren't some good tapas in town. And the latest to offer a good tapas menu is Che (268 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-231-2224). Yes, this is the location most recently occupied by the tapas extremist Richard Blais and, before him, the tapas bad boy Paul Luna. Originally, it was the Peachtree Cafe, Atlanta's pre-eminent singles spot, decorated with enough mirrors to intimidate Paris Hilton.

Now Gerry Klaskala, George McKerrow and Ron San Martin — longtime partners in other ventures like Canoe and Aria — have asked chef Carvel Grant Gould to create a menu that is far less outre than Blais' and far less annoying than Luna's (served by a nude Luna on multi-tiered platforms). I admit that I much prefer Blais' kinky work, even though his adventurous style, now to be found at Bazzaar, risks crashing and burning now and then. But Gould has created a menu of about 30 good tapas with a few entree-style plates.

The Johnson Studio was called back in to redo the space. The name, Argentine slang for "friend," will make lefty boomers like me recall Che Guevara, but you won't find his image — popularized in Warhol's famous poster — here. You'll instead find red-hot walls with a swirling multicolored ceiling. "I get the red," I told Wayne. "Tropical heat, sex, etc., but what does the ceiling mean?"

"It is chaos subdued by order," he said, swilling some rum drink.

"Well, that kind of reflects the entire project here since Paul Luna left," I said.

Honestly, I much prefer the new look over the gloomy last one. Indeed, I ran into an old friend, designer John Oetgen, at the restaurant. John designed some of the original Peasant restaurants, including Mick's, and he declared it a good-looking space.

I didn't eat a thing I didn't like, though a few items could stand improvement. For example, Serrano ham and chorizo — served with olives, cornichons and pickled onions — was sliced far too thin for my taste. It's completely intentional: The menus describe it as "thinly sliced," but Serrano ham, unlike prosciutto, needs more body to communicate its flavor.

Queso fundido — melted cheese — is here spiked with sparkling cava wine. The wine adds great flavor, but it also makes the dip too watery for its plantain and malanga chips.

End of complaints. A toasted pumpkin seed dip is earthy and smoky tasting. A little hamburger — these are appearing everywhere — is cooked Cuban-style with cumin and made crispy with shoestring potatoes placed inside the bun. My favorite dish was a large piece of skate, flash-fried in a crispy batter and served with a mojo of smoked paprika and Key lime juice.

Air-dried tuna doesn't have a hell of a lot of flavor but it's a subtle pleasure, served over a salsa fresca of sweet peppers, cukes and tomatoes. Peekytoe crab is served on plantain chips. Taste citrus, soy and sesame.

We shared one entree: a roasted half-chicken. The chicken here may now be my favorite, a spot previously held by Brasserie le Coze. The mainly boned chicken is roasted until the salty skin is crisp and served over warmed arugula with roasted yellow and red peppers.

Kathryn King, well known to lovers of Aria, is making the desserts and they are true to her usual artistry. Tres leches, here rendered as a "cupcake" with a meringue frosting, its plate garnished with fresh chopped pineapple, is by far the best I've had in our city. Chocolate bread pudding pleases as much and is not quite as sweet.

Back to Sala

Having caught a Latin fever this week, I returned to Sala (1186 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-7203) for the first time in many months. Here's proof once again that a restaurant can dramatically improve itself. I should have expected as much. The Fifth Group, remarkable in continually fine-tuning its restaurants, includes La Tavola, South City Kitchen and the Food Studio, as well as Sala.

Our meal started with a trio of brilliantly flavored salsas. I followed that with a grilled quail served with roasted sweet potatoes and roasted plantains. The quail, a bit salty, was covered in a green mole heavily garnished with cilantro. Like the three salsas, the mole was complex, full-bodied and uniquely savory.

Wayne ordered the regular Wednesday night special — a seafood platter with tilapia pan-fried in a buttermilk batter and topped with a spicy remoulade, shrimp grilled with chipotle sauce, and oysters on the half-shell with a roasted Serrano chile mignonette. My choice was a pair of chile rellenos — flawlessly batter-fried poblanos, sharply spicy, one filled with Chihuahua cheese and the other with chorizo and potatoes. Finest in the city.

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

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