Restaurant Review - Cuerno: Beyond tapas

Into the heart of Spanish cuisine

It's ironic that Spanish food has arrived in Atlanta long after tapas became old news. In true American fashion, restaurants have taken the selling point of a cuisine (oh, look — it's itty-bitty!) and drained it of most of the authenticity that made it good in the first place. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "Atlanta isn't ready for real Spanish food" as an excuse from restaurateurs hocking tapas with no trace of Spanish influence.

Riccardo Ullio claims to have never heard that line of reasoning, and his trust in our palates shows in Cuerno, his fourth restaurant. With a menu created by chef Ken Bouche, consulting Spanish chef Jordi Villegas, and overseen by Ullio, Cuerno takes on Spanish food with gusto and creativity.

One of the nice things about Ullio's restaurants is their scale. While other new restaurants get bigger and grander, Sotto Sotto, Beleza, and now Cuerno remain intimate, personal affairs, residing in that most old-fashioned of locations, the storefront. Cuerno's life-sized metal bull sculpture stands in the middle of the room among the tables, bringing the restaurant's design element solidly home. You're not just looking at the décor here, you're eating with it.

There's also a lot of fun to be had with the restaurant's beverages. The 100 percent Spanish wine list is full of exciting bottles, especially for drinkers bored with the usual selections. Cava and many of the wines are available by the porron, a glass pitcher that resembles a watering can. You're supposed to pour the wine directly into your mouth. Yes, I tried it. Yes, I felt silly.

Of the two sangrias available, I highly recommend the sparkling version, flavored with grapes and kumquats. The appeal of fizzy, fruity drinks has long eluded me, but this one is just sweet enough and utterly refreshing.

There's a selection of tapas on the menu here, but don't expect gimmicky "small plates." As in Spain, Cuerno's tapas are basically bar snacks. Addictive ham croquettes come with melting cheesy interiors and crispy exteriors. Fried padron peppers are salty delights, sweet with charred bitter undertones. The fabada asturiana pairs chunks of chorizo and blood sausage with hearty white beans.

But if you're wondering where to start, and don't have a ton of people to share with, I'd go with the plancha grill. The high-heat grill offers up beautifully caramelized scallops, sweet clams, and giant prawns, all bathed in that addictive combination of good olive oil, garlic and parsley.

There are six paellas to choose from, all available for two or more at $18 per person. This section of the menu is again a testament to Ullio and Bouche's confidence in our adventurous spirit. Rather than the safe, boring and tepid paellas found in most American restaurants, the kitchen at Cuerno delivers full-flavored, region-specific dishes, complete with squid ink, cuttlefish and snails. The snail and rabbit paella is musky, minerally and sweet, tasting of the earth, field and ocean. The soupy lobster paella is exceedingly rich, cooked in an intense seafood stock.

Tapas are fun, and the paellas are delicious and comforting, but I found the menu's true genius to be in the entrees. Where other parts of the menu focus on authenticity, creativity takes hold here. Cauliflower and sweet sultanas accompany the veal, served with a huge, creamy sweetbread. The dish married the rich, fruity and foresty components harmoniously and held them together with a beautifully cooked pink piece of meat. A pile of smoky and creamy eggplant complements monkfish wrapped in Serrano ham and offset by raisins and capers. Balance reigns in these dishes as does a precision in the execution that's impossible to fake.

While there aren't exactly lows on the menu, some of the dishes seemed less clearly flavored to me. The suckling pig's crispy skin is a pork lover's dream, but the meat underneath wasn't as juicy as I had hoped it would be. The octopus and potato appetizer seemed to meld together, losing some of the flavors to a muddy middle ground. And an almond cake at dessert was a bit dry and crumbly.

Other desserts made up for it, though – the beautiful cardamom-scented crema catalana is the perfect antidote to crème brûlée apathy. And the bitter and dense dark chocolate mousse reminds us that chocolate can have an exhilarating sinister side.

Service is highly professional and friendly, but it's stretched a bit thin during busy times, and it always seems to be busy right now. The slightly harried pace didn't bother me too much, but it did lead to a couple of disappointments when servers didn't have the chance to mention menu changes or things they were out of. To their credit, much care was taken to make up for these disappointments after the fact.

There's a lot that goes into a city's collective palate, and no one restaurant or chef can be blamed for our trends and tastes. But credit should be given to Ullio and Bouche for having the nerve and the talent to take us beyond tapas and into the true nature of Spanish cooking. Itty-bitty food can be fun, but flavor and focus eclipse trends, and are the components that make a cuisine and a restaurant timeless.