Visits to Midtown Tavern and Sheik Burritos n Kabobs

Cliff blows his lab results to hell while eating well-sourced food

In last week's cover story, Food & Drink Editor Besha Rodell began the account of her 10-day consumption of raw food with the observation that a dining critic's diet produces a "caloric surfeit," for which we are always trying to compensate.

Boy howdy. That can mean following a binge on Holeman & Finch's burger with the relative purging of a simple plate of veggies at Dynamic Dish. For me, the excess has mainly meant exercise. I'm in the gym just about every day, but, as I age, even the tortures of treadmills and iron aren't adequate to counteract the effects of infamously unhealthy restaurant food.

Doctors drive me crazy about this every time my lab results come back with "dining critic" written all over them. "Can't you taste the food without swallowing it all?" one asked me this week.

"But digestion is part of the evaluation," I lied. "And, anyway, I try to eat mainly organic and locally sourced food."

She looked at me askance. "Fat is fat, salt is salt," she said. "You're talking about taste."

Well, not entirely, given that one hopes for reduced use of pesticides in such food. But it's certainly true that many factors that affect health are little changed by good sourcing. I went to two restaurants this week that remind me that it's possible to blow your lab results to hell while eating well-sourced food.

The first was Midtown Tavern (554 Piedmont Ave., 404-541-1372), which has evolved into something of a gastropub thanks to the talented cooking of chef Robert Cassi. His dishes include quality meats and local produce when possible. In every other respect, this is a typical bar: cavernous, black-painted walls, little décor beyond the pool tables up front.

There were not more than 10 customers in the place when we visited rather early on a Wednesday night and only one person was providing service. She was a model of efficiency but needed assistance.

The menu is all over the map here. You can have chicken fingers or an ostrich burger, for example. And ordinary dishes feature quality ingredients. Chili is made with brisket. Indeed, the burgers are a blend of ground brisket, hanger steak and chuck. Georgia shrimp are served over grits with a Creole sauce. The pork chop is house butchered and the rib eye, served with bone-marrow butter and blue cheese, is all natural, as is the chicken.

We chose a pair of starters – hummus with slices of warm nan bread and spicy sunflower seeds, plus a grilled margherita pizza. The latter, a thin and smoky pie made with good-quality mozzarella and decent tomatoes, was the better choice. The hummus looked like it had been served with an ice-cream scoop and was frankly bland and too stiff for dipping the soft bread.

My entrée of half a fried chicken (sans wing) required a 15-minute wait because it's only cooked when ordered. Cassi soaks the chicken in buttermilk before frying. It was delicious, and the meat remained quite moist despite a bit too much time in the fryer, causing the flour coating to blacken here and there. It was served with mashed Yukon potatoes and the day's vegetable, bourbon-glazed baby carrots.

Wayne, following my doctor's instructions for me, ordered the Black and Blue entrée salad. It was made with (intentionally) blackened chicken, mixed greens, Danish blue cheese and honey-mustard dressing. Not bad, but it wouldn't be my first choice in a pub with some interesting choices. Then again, Wayne doesn't have my lousy blood-sugar levels.

A few days later, I ate an amazing burrito in a new place weirdly described as "cutting edge Persian/Southwestern fusion." It's called Sheik Burritos n Kabobs (1877 Piedmont Road, 404-815-0227) and is located in the unlucky spot most recently vacated by Da Chicago Dogs.

The fusion apparently results from the affable young owner being brought up by an Iranian father and going to college in Arizona. He told me that he'd worked for some years at Houston's and had long experimented with his own recipes at dinner parties. He uses only natural meats and, when obtainable, local produce.

I've had two meals at the new café and my first was the best. I ordered the El Kosher-Halal burrito stuffed with pork kabobs, rice, a sauce of spicy eggplant, lentils and tomatoes, and the Sheik's salad. The latter features romaine lettuce, golden raisins, apples, pistachios, fresh mint and a tangy vinaigrette. All of this was rolled into warm, soft Persian flatbread and lightly dressed with yogurt. This union of absolutely fresh, first-quality ingredients – the pork is Berkshire – was astonishing. I could have eaten two. It was all so natural, I'm sure my doctor wouldn't mind.

I returned the next day to assemble my own burrito – this time featuring lamb, rice and sabzi, a sauce of greens and red kidney beans with lime. Unlike my first meal, I took this one out. I think having the burrito completely wrapped in tinfoil and put inside a paper bag caused the bread to get a bit too spongy and the flavors too blended. It was still superlative, but not as mind-bending as the first one.

I also ordered Chic Dip – chic, not sheik, get it? – and hummus on my second visit. They were both disappointing. The Chic Dip is "a cleverly stylish/currently fashionable eggplant dip." I'm afraid not. It reminded me of an artichoke dip like you might find at, um, Houston's. It was too thick for dipping with either chips or wedges of pita bread. (It has very little in common with baba ghanouj, by the way.) The hummus was better, but ordinary and a bit garlicky for my taste.

My advice is to eat in and, for the present, skip the starters, although sun devil beets are tempting. There are also soups and salads, plus chicken, tofu and beef kabobs, as well as the lamb and pork, for the burritos. Finally, you can also order the burritos made with a flour tortilla – and the truly health conscious can please my doctor by ordering one "dog-style." Uh huh, I know what you're thinking, but it means you get the ingredients in a metal bowl without the high-carb wrap.

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