Restaurant Review - Agave's got the juice

Solid Southwestern cooks in Cabbagetown

When Jack Sobel decided to open Agave in Cabbagetown, he was faced with a much larger task than devising a distinctive menu and hiring a knowledgeable waitstaff. Housed in Eureka's trashed former digs, Sobel confesses that he had to throw everything away and start from scratch.

In an area that seems perpetually up-and-coming and has seen a series of restaurants go belly-up, Agave celebrated its one-year anniversary Oct. 13. Sobel must be doing something right.

The restaurant's location — adjacent to both the Fulton Cotton Mill lofts and Oakland Cemetery — doesn't take direction from either historic site. Instead, the interior, much like the cuisine, is a welcoming Southwestern pastiche of cool colors and natural materials. Most of the year you'll find groups basking on the patio, and not wanting to lose the table space during the cooler months, the patio recently has been enclosed and heaters installed to make the area dine-able all year.

The host at the door is a welcome surprise from the former occupant's more bohemian style. In fact, Sobel has suffered criticism from some who call the restaurant too corporate, too prompt, too courteous. Maybe those are bad things in some circles, but I enjoy efficient service. The owner's former roles as manager at Tiburon Grill and director of operations of Fratelli di Napoli serve him well.

The restaurant takes its name from the plant from which tequila is made and for good reason. The bar is heavily stocked with rows of tequilas — the menu lists more than 30 derivatives (at $35 a shot, Herradura Seleccion Suprema is the most expensive) and a dozen margaritas ranging from $5.75-$8.50.

Other restaurants and bars in this neighborhood wouldn't dare offer nearly $9 drinks, so to see what gives, we ordered the Texas margarita and the Top Shelf (both $8.50). The Texas includes Sauza Conmemorativo, Grand Marnier, orange juice and lime. The Top Shelf was made with Cuervo 1800, Grand Marnier, triple sec and lime. I didn't know what I was missing. The margaritas were refreshing, well balanced and had plenty of kick. But the Traditional (Sauza Gold, fresh lime juice, triple sec, sour mix and salt at $5.75) proved on the same par as the pricier ones and for a few dollars less, I think I'll stick to it.

Unlike the margaritas, the eclectic Southwestern menu doesn't succeed so easily. Appetizers range from seared rare tuna salad ($7.50), shrimp and tuna seviche ($8) to more traditional items like the posole soup ($5.50).

Southwestern spring rolls ($6.75) seemed like a good idea: fried rice paper stuffed with crab, shrimp, vegetables and jalapenos. The rolls were fishy and the tomatillo serrano chili salsa it was paired with was mild.

Luckily the posole soup really delivers. Guajillo red chilies, hominy, braised pork, mild green chilies and lime arrived steaming hot and was easily enough for two. The spice missing earlier showed up here, clinging to the firm hominy pieces. Once I couldn't scoop up any more with my spoon, I used the warm blue and yellow corn chips that arrived promptly at the table to get every last taste. I'd gladly skip some of the other less potent dishes and have this as my main meal.

Most entrees have fiery sounding prefixes: chile rubbed grilled pork tenderloin, cayenne fried chicken, red pepper salmon fillet, ancho pepper filet mignon. You'd think your tongue would be on fire from all the pepper and spices. But the headiest one of them all, the ancho pepper filet mignon, didn't even compare with the posole.

Despite the misleading titles, the dishes still satisfy. Cayenne fried chicken ($10.50), similar to dishes found elsewhere in the city, was a heavily battered chicken breast resting on a bed of mashed potatoes. The biggest disappointment was the grilled ears of corn that were undercooked.

A more traditional sounding dish, the shredded pork tacos, were the most satisfying main course and had the lowest price tag at $9.75. Two soft tortillas contained tender hand-pulled pork, and resembled enchiladas more than tacos. They were surrounded by black beans, rice, a creamy corn salsa, guacamole and sour cream.

Several seafood dishes are on the menu as well. The red pepper salmon filet ($14.75) sits atop a bed of julienned veggies, surrounded by a pool of roasted red pepper sauce. A few spears of grilled asparagus leaned against the stack to complete the scene. The shocking red color of the pepper sauce punched up the plate visually but didn't add much flavor. The sauteed vegetables seemed unnecessary since the grilled asparagus was a better, tastier complement.

In addition to dinner, Agave also has become a popular hangout for the brunch set on Sundays. Chowing down on the Southern breakfast ($7.25), scrambled eggs, applewood bacon, roasted potatoes and cheddar cheese grits with a side of salsa and a warm tortilla or cinnamon and banana French toast ($6.75), the patio is packed for hours as waves of Saturday night refugees filter in.

With the popularity of Sundays at Agave growing, I wondered if there were plans to expand the menu to cater to a potential lunch crowd. Sobel was quick to answer, "Never." He's succeeded at every venture so far in the city. He doesn't plan on failing now.

The restaurant veteran can teach others at least one valuable lesson — don't fix what isn't broken.