First Look: Mamak and Gusto! Wood Fire Grill
One visit each to two newish Atlanta eateries
As the server sets down a whole fish drenched in glossy red sauce, I imagine what it would be like to roam the city streets, saucy pomfret in hand, you know, like a burrito wrapped in foil; a quick bite on the go. Mamak, the Asian Square Malaysian restaurant that opened this fall is, after all, billed as a street food joint. But on this nippy December night, one dose of throaty, creeping heat from the flaky fish and sticky sambal ($12.95) melts all conceptual grievances instantly. The casual restaurant has about 50 seats. A barrage of loud, circus-colored stripes covers the walls, and a thick scent of spice hangs in the air.
In general, Malaysian cuisine cherry-picks its features from Chinese, Indian, and Malay cooking styles. To that end, Mamak's sprawling menu follows suit. Roti canai ($3.95) to start is a no-brainer. The delightful, squishy flatbread and amber-gold curry are an ideal precursor to the array of noodles, stir fries, and stews to come. They leave you wanting more. Another one of six starters, listed as "curry puff pastry," turns out to be two, empanada-like half moons filled with thick chicken curry, potatoes, and onions.
Nasi Lemak ($8.95), a platter filled with hunks of sparerib and potatoes, comes with a dome of subtle coconut rice, anchovies, and a hard-boiled egg. Chewy medallions of meat in Mamak's Rendang beef ($14.95) are drenched in a heavily spiced sauce the texture of chimichurri, but the color of dark chocolate. Wide, cooked-to-the-tooth flat noodles in the chow kway teow ($8.95) are about as close to textural bliss as eating gets. Not only a pleasure to chew, the ribbons — and the shrimp, squid, egg, bean sprouts, soy sauce, and chili paste they're tangled with — are infused with the essence of charcoal from time spent in a smoking-hot, well-seasoned wok. Curry laksa ($8.95), coconut milk curry with either chicken or beef, is full of supple spaghetti-like noodles you'd find in Chinese lo mein.
It's hard to pinpoint the worst bite of an evening when all the dishes ranged from good to great. That night, the kitchen ran through its supply of coveted Hainanese chicken by the time we arrived, but judging by the table full of dishes we did try at Mamak, that ought to be stellar, too.
Earlier that day, Creative Loafing Dining Critic Jennifer Zyman and I lunched at Gusto! Wood Fire Grill in South Buckhead. While we waited for food — a spiced tomato tzatziki salad, a tahini cucumber feta flatbread with chicken, and a sweet soy Sriracha brown rice bowl with meaty portobello mushrooms — we realized we'd been mispronouncing the month-and-a-half old eatery's name all week. Her DNA and my college training meant we were both hardwired to interpret "gusto" in the Spanish sense forever more. (¡Mucho gusto!) In Gusto! owner Nate Hybl's realm, the word translates more or less to "enthusiasm" or "vigor." The name also characterizes Hybl's journey from South Georgia boy to Oklahoma Sooner quarterback, then Georgia Bulldog to NFL football player, and then to foodie, by way of hanging out at Whole Foods and asking a bunch of questions.
Since opening, Gusto has made a splash with the Piedmont Hospital lunch crowd and anyone else who's in the mood for something (relatively) healthy (relatively) fast. The cookie-cutter interior adopts the now-ubiquitous warehouse-chic design. There are cool concrete floors, hip Edison bulb light fixtures, and ashy-gray wood paneling with flashy yellow accents.
Lunchtime is Gusto's bread and butter. It's busy, the line moves quickly, and nearly the entire crowd looks like it came from straight from a cubicle — or if not, they're wearing scrubs. Gusto's menu is the ultra-customizable assembly line sort. When it's your turn at the register, you'll need to produce three pieces of information: the style of meal (wrapped in flatbread, over brown rice, atop a salad, or a regular old sandwich on toasted bread); the protein — chicken ($8.50), sliced portobello mushrooms ($9.50), shrimp ($9.50); and yes, your gusto, the name given to the seven preset "flavor profiles ... created from the world's ingredients. Each offers 3 layers of flavor and texture," says the website. "A housemade sauce plus fresh fruits and vegetables plus fresh garnish."
Gusto combinations are straightforward and shamelessly fusion-y — almost excessively so. Good thing the food is on-point flavor and texture-wise. What you read on the menu board is exactly what you get. Keystone ingredients like Sriracha and Korean barbecue sauce are there to up Gusto!'s foodie cred. There is a buffalo chicken gusto with carrots, celery, buttermilk blue cheese dressing and a Tex-Mex version with black beans, corn, mango, and avocado. The chili citrus barbecue, with cilantro, cucumber, and citrus avocado dressing, checks the Asian fusion box; a tahini cucumber feta gusto does the same for Mediterranean food. Elsewhere, "Moroccan spiced" tomato, "sweet Japanese soy," and "mild curry peanut" sauces cover another unwieldy chunk of the globe. Once compiled, each dish comes with freshly fried sweet potato chips — a nice touch. Or you can trade up to a side salad for a few extra bucks.
Gusto is open for lunch and dinner daily from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. While it doesn't redefine modern gastronomy as we know it, Gusto's health-conscious, quick-fix food is a welcome addition for anyone already loyal to places like Fresh to Order, Chipotle, and Metro Fresh.