Grazing: First Look: Sweet Auburn Bistro

Soul-food-inspired fine dining

“Happy Cinco de Mayo,” the apparent manager of the restaurant said to us soon after we were seated.

“Where’s the mariachi band?” Wayne asked.

“I’m afraid I have no Mexican food and no mariachi band – just Sirius Radio,” he replied. We cheered. In years past, we’ve paid big bucks to convince mariachi bands to cease performing their 500 verses of “Besame Mucho” at our table. We could handle the radio’s salsa tunes.

Actually, we were at the new Sweet Auburn Bistro (171 Auburn Ave., 404-525-5810) to avoid the Cinco scene altogether. We were much happier eating executive chef Glenn Law’s Southern cooking than the miserable Tex-Mex crap slung around the city’s kitchens every Cinco de Mayo. When the music turned to jazz, we were happier still.

Sweet Auburn Bistro, which is directly across the street from Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, has been open about a month. We’ve visited twice and had very inconsistent experiences. Here’s a typical example: On Cinco de Mayo, I ordered the fried chicken. You get your choice of dark or white meat. I chose the latter, but when the plate arrived, it held a leg and a thigh. Thinking I might just make do, I bit into the leg and was greeted by very greasy chicken that had apparently been sitting around for a while. It was tepid and the batter was soggy.

I sent the chicken back. After quite a wait — Wayne finished his dinner before I got started — my new plate arrived with its breast and wing. The server warned me, “Be careful. This is fresh out of the grease, so it’s really hot.” Indeed it was hot and it tasted about 10 times better than the leg had.

That means, apparently, that the chicken is typically fried in advance. My advice is that you ask about its status before ordering it. If you get it fresh out of the fryer, it’s great. If not, you’ll long for Popeye’s.

Similarly, we found an order of fried green tomatoes virtually soggy during our first visit. Granted, they are served under melted mozzarella but I’m talking breading that had all but dissolved.

A lot of the lengthy menu is fried — or at least Wayne and I were drawn to the fried food — and most other dishes showed no problem. Calamari “marinated in buttermilk” and fried in flour spiked with red pepper were tender and crispy. The red pepper was barely noticeable, so I suggest you order some sriracha to go with the “Southern tomato gravy” that tasted like ordinary stewed tomatoes to me. Chicken egg rolls were quite munchable. Stuffed with blackened breast of chicken, grilled corn, red onions, black beans and shaved cabbage, they had a surprisingly creamy interior texture. It’s a kind of homogenized flavor but it works.

Wayne ordered the restaurant’s fish and chips our first night. I found the dish overwhelming and, in fact, he couldn’t eat more than half of it. It is a huge serving of the restaurant’s kettle-fried potato chips, scattered with blue cheese, tomatoes, red onions and scallions. Big chunks of white fish fried in buttermilk-beer batter are arranged along the periphery of the gigantic bowl. The menu actually says the fish is served with french fries and malt vinegar. I don’t know if the potato chips were a one-time substitution. The restaurant had run out of a lot of items during our first visit.

Wayne opted for yet another fried entrée during our second visit — coconut shrimp. I should admit up front that I have never eaten coconut shrimp that I didn’t find repulsively sweet and annoyingly gritty because of the coconut. My one bite of this had the usual effect on me, but Wayne thought it was fine. The shrimp were butterflied, by the way, ensuring that there was even more of the coating.

Besides the fried chicken, I also tried the roasted half-chicken at our server’s suggestion during our first visit. He told me that it featured Caribbean-style seasonings and was roasted at a high temperature to create a crispy skin. Sorry. The chicken tasted slightly peppery and the skin, far from being crispy, was missing in places. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what the server promised.

Most of the side dishes were also mediocre. Grits with aged white cheddar cheese were, alas, cold, fluffy and had no taste of cheese whatsoever. Ditto for the smashed white cheddar potatoes. Collards and macaroni and cheese were straightforward and tasty. Pineapple-papaya coleslaw was a good accompaniment for the coconut shrimp, adding to the effect of eating candy for an entrée.

The best thing I ate in the restaurant was an old-fashioned hoecake. I would love to make a meal of them.

Dessert was a letdown. A $5 order of double-crust peach cobbler arrived in one of those itty-bitty bowls they used in public-school cafeterias when I was a kid. And what’s this about a double crust? Not only was there no double crust, there was barely any upper crust and it was mushy.

I really wanted to like this place. It has a good vibe. There are two dining rooms, one on each side of a full-service bar. The prices are mainly low, the service is first-rate. The restaurant could become an anchor in its historic neighborhood. But the food is mediocre. It is generally bland and underseasoned. I hope it gets better and takes on more of the quality of the soul food that inspires it.

Oh. One final annoyance. When we received our credit card receipts to sign, we found this printed at the bottom: “For your convenience we are providing you the following gratuity calculations.” Below that, were amounts for 15 percent, 18 percent and 20 percent. And all of them were double what they should have been!

Wayne was outraged, but I think that even though we were splitting the bill, the initial charge to our accounts was the full amount. At least, this is what I frequently see on my online bank statement the day after a meal charge; it is later adjusted.

“Still,” Wayne the statistical analyst barked, “it’s very misleading. It’s just not accurate!”

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