Monday, February 13, 2012

Restaurant Review: Alma Cocina

Since two of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, La Tavola and El Taco, are both in the Fifth Group stable, I sit up and pay attention when they open something new. So I was thrilled when they invited us in for a media preview dinner shortly after opening. Despite a tough location - the old Il Molino space in a downtown office building (191 Peachtree Tower) - Alma Cocina lived up to my fairly lofty expectations.

As for the location, I am not a fan of downtown. I rarely have occasion to go down there, I don't know my way around, and parking is a major hassle. Fortunately, Alma has free parking in an easy to find deck and building, so my normal excuses don't really apply.

On our visit, the building lobby had a rather epic Christmas tree which actually made it quite lovely for an office. Given the extent of my loathing of my own office's cafe, I'd be pretty thrilled to have Alma on offer in walking distance of my cubicle!

Never fear, the vibe is more sexy date spot than it is business suit power lunch. Dark woods, red leather seating, and Latin-inspired accents such as a bull's head make it feels miles from the average tourist trap downtown spot. My only quibble - the TV at the bar feels like a non-sequitor. This doesn't strike me like a place you'd go to catch the game, and on the night I was there, an episode of Law and Order wasn't quite in keeping with the otherwise hip and romantic vibe.

Service was attentive, efficient and friendly despite being recently opened. I have consistently found Fifth Group to be total pros at customer service and have truly never had a bad experience with their people. We were pleased with all of our waiter's recs and even got a chance to speak with their friendly and very knowledgeable Chef Clevenger.

The Mr. and I decided to gorge ourselves on a little bit of everything from the upscale but approachable contemporary Mexican menu. We kicked things off with cocktails, which Alma excels at. An Amatitan uses an extra-special custom-barreled Herradura "double reposado" tequila to make a truly perfect margarita. It had none of the cloying sugary sweetness you usually get as it combined the tequila with just organge Curacao and hand-squeezed citrus juices.

The Lay of the Land combined tequila with Poire William liqueur, jalapeno, cucumber and hibiscus salt. I could have gone for even more spicy kick, but I found this also to be a nice take on a tequila cocktail without too much sweetness. The Amatitan was so awesome, though, that I think I'll just order that every time I go!

We skipped the more traditional guac in favor of an unusual sounding guacamole with butternut squash, chipotle and queso fresco. It was quickly scarfed down, and we found it just the right balance of guac you know and love with enough of a twist to keep it interesting.

Huitaloche empanadas also caught my eye. Huitaloche is a corn fungus (or corn smut, yikes!) that is frequently eaten in Mexico but rarely heard of stateside. Clearly there's a branding problem because corn smut sounds like an STD, but the earthy flavor is actually quite tasty. 

Huitaloche walks into a bar. Bartender says, "Get out, we don't serve your kind here." Huitaloches says, "why not, I'm a fungi?
Not content with just corn fungus, we chose some Elote as well. El Taco's Mexican corn is one of my favorite side dishes in town, so I was curious if their more authentic take on the Mexican classic would stack up. While I do appreciate the neater off the cob eating offered at El Taco, this was worthy competition with no shortage of char or creamy aioli. A totally worthwhile mess!

There are several ceviches to choose from. We opted for the Corvina Sea Bass, which would have been my last choice based on the menu description, but it was recommended by our server. My first bite was disappointing, until I realized you had to get a spoonful from the bottom where the creamy deliciousness of avocado mousse lied in wait. The combination of fresh fish, tart lime, spicy pico de gallo and the mousse was a nice change from your run of the mill tun tartare.

In a nice change of pace from more common pork, beef, or chicken tacos, braised lamb taquitos were served with cucumber mint salsa and pomegranate seeds. I loved the combination of subtley gamey, tender lamb and the sweet pop of the seeds.

If you find the taquitos fairly small, you might instead opt for a Huaraches, soft corn masa tortillas with a variety of toppings because these babies were huge for $7. We chose the chicken mole Oaxaca. Years ago, I spent a week in Oaxaca, and I was officially over moles for quite a while. Fortunately my mole-overload has passed, and I was impressed by Alma's rendition. Moles are amazingly complex, and if done right, you get a real depth of flavor from the subtle layering of ingredients. It may not be quite the same as kicking it in Oaxaca, but Alma did the dish proud.

Lately, I see a lot of menus on which the appetizers and small plates look more excited than the entrees. Alma is a perfect example. The menu no shortage of dishes I was eager to try but nothing really called out to me from its short Platos Mayores menu. Still, we gave it a go and ordered the grilled flatiron steak, mostly on the appeal of the poblano-goat cheese potato gratin. The steak was well prepared and the gratin was suitably decadent, but for $24, I'd rather have three of the interesting and reasonably priced smaller plates instead. I guess I'm just a sucker for variety!

We were of course by this point completely stuffed, but we're looking for a successor to Tierra's heavenly tres leches cake, so we gave Alma's a shot. With the addition of coconut, mango and passion fruit, it is a fundamentally different variation. I might still give the edge to Tierr a, but it's my favorite cake EVER, so even saying that, I thought Alma's was pretty darn tasty. Next time I might go for the oh so yummy sounding sweet potato empanadas with horchata ice cream. Horchata is one of my fave Latin treats, so how can you go wrong?

So if you can't tell already, we really enjoyed it. Alma was friendly, interesting, and more than a little sexy...kind of like the perfect date! It's definitely not your combo plate style Mexican, and thank the good Lord, it's not more southern farm to table, so in my book, it's a very exciting new addition to Atlanta's dining scene! 

Alma Cocina 
One Ninety One Peachtree Tower (adjacent to downtown Ritz-Carlton)
191 Peachtree Street NE
Atlanta, GA 30303

Alma Cocina on Urbanspoon
*Full disclosure: Although my meal was comped, I always endeavor to offer my unbiased opinion of the experience!
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