The city's best Southwestern at Agave
Plus Bucc's BBQ on Boulevard
Agave (242 Boulevard, 404-588-0006 www.agaverestaurant.com), routinely described as the best Southwestern restaurant in the city, is coming up on its 10th anniversary this October. It's not far from our house and is always busy, usually with a full parking lot and people sipping tequila drinks outside while they wait for a table.
When Wayne's mother visited last week, I figured it was a good opportunity to revisit the restaurant. We haven't dined there in a couple of years and needed a Mother's Day destination. I scored a reservation and we were lucky to get seated as soon as we arrived, despite the usual crowd.
Of course, as soon as we sat down, I recalled that Wayne's mother is not a big fan of spicy food. And the Agave menu does highlight chilies in just about every dish, especially the New Mexican Hatch green chile, often regarded as the world's best. The restaurant also utilizes jalapeños, red chilies, poblanos, serranos, habaneros, anchos and cayenne. As I explained to Wayne's mother, the piquancy of many chilies can unpredictably range from very mild to very hot, so I felt quite guilty about bringing her here.
But it worked out. She was most interested in the entrée of pan-seared sashmi-grade tuna but fretted over the jalapeño-wasabi "drizzle" and the soy-serrano vinaigrette. The server offered to leave them off.
"You know," I said after she ordered the dish, "that tuna will barely be cooked. It's just seared on both sides, usually."
"I know," she said, "and I don't really like it that way."
The server then offered to ask the kitchen to cook it a bit longer. I've not seen many restaurants act so accommodatingly. The fish itself was wonderful as it arrived, only cooked a bit longer than usual, encrusted with black sesame seeds and served over mashed Yukon Gold potatoes with a few stalks of grilled asparagus.
Wayne did not inherit his mother's sensitivity to hot and spicy food. Like many Baby Boomers, he demands hot sauce for everything. He started with the restaurant's green chile stew, made with the quite prickly Hatch green chilies, tenderloin beef tips, potatoes, onions and corn. This dish, on the menu at Agave since its start, is probably my favorite. I've ordered it in double portions as an entrée.
I selected my long-time second favorite here for my own starter – posole, a soup made with pulled pork and hominy afloat in a red-chile broth spiked with lime juice and some green chilies. Posole is not as spicy as the green chile stew, but the hominy provides a comforting mouth feel that plays well against the acidic, peppery broth. I've eaten gallons of the stuff in Mexico and Houston and along Buford Highway. Chef-owner Jack Sobel's is as good as any I've had.
Wayne's entrée was mountain trout stuffed with crawfish, mushrooms, onions and basil, served over Spanish rice with a roasted tomatillo sauce and cilantro. This seemed a bit overwrought to me, but the fish had great flavor. There's not much I don't like if it features a tomatillo sauce.
My own entrée was the restaurant's take on the ubiquitous braised short rib. Agave uses Angus beef and marinates it in ancho chilies and honey. My dish held three large, fork-tender cubes, glazed slightly sweet with a concoction of smoked chilies. The beef was served over mashed potatoes with goat cheese; grilled asparagus was also on the plate. Personally, I'd like the restaurant to turn up the spiciness of the dish, but, then again, it's probably a good candidate for worried eaters like Wayne's mama.
We were way too full to try dessert. Like nearly every restaurant in town these days, Agave's portions are rib-sticking. Don't touch the chips and salsa at the meal's beginning if you want to make it through even two courses.
New on Boulevard
"Let me just tell you," the counter girl told me as soon as I walked in. "We don't have pork." She pointed at a graphic on the wall announcing this fact.
That wouldn't be so surprising if this weren't a barbecue shack. Its name is Bucc's BBQ (313 Boulevard, 404-736-6197) and it's in the unlucky location last occupied by Just Loaf'n, a Cajun sandwich shop.
"So, why no pork?" I asked.
"We are a Muslim family," she replied.
"Well, that's a good reason," I said.
I've only had one take-home meal here – brisket – and found it quite enjoyable. Interestingly, the restaurant shreds it somewhat like pulled pork. Mine was juicy and tender, topped with "blazin' sauce" that, as usual, didn't seem very hot to me but did have great flavor. It's a tomato-based sauce, slightly sweet, as well as (sort of) hot. The restaurant also offers a sweet, peach-based sauce.
For sides, I ordered collards and mac and cheese. The latter was pretty usual, but the greens were especially good. The restaurant pays special attention to their seasoning, because, I'm guessing, they're not cooked with the usual pork. Definitely order them.
Bucc's also serves links (beef, chicken or veggie), rib tips, turkey wings, chicken and ribs. There's limited seating on the patio and a drive-up window if you don't want to park and go inside. I'm anxious to try more of the restaurant's fare.
Here and there
Cabbagetown Market & Grill has, happily, re-opened. Lisa Hanson has reopened it with a new partner who specializes in gourmet ice creams....Noon, the popular lunch and breakfast spot in Midtown, is now open for dinner. The menu features three sandwiches, including an eggplant panino, and five mainly light entrees such as pan roasted Springer Mountain chicken and roasted Scottish salmon with tzatziki and couscous....
Waiting on: Farmstead 303, the new restaurant from the owners of Feast, directly across the street at 303 E. Howard in the old train depot. At this writing, Farmstead's phone message says it will be opening "very very soon" and at least one event has already been hosted there; Kevin Gillespie's barbecue joint in the Brake O location at the corner of Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge (although unnamed sources say the project is "on hold"); Goin' Coastal, presumably related to the same-named restaurant in Canton, on Virginia Avenue in the vacated Figo location; a fantastic burger joint not far from the aforementioned Brake O – more info coming soon.