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Grazing: South of the border

Georgia Grille, Noche and Tierra — plus adios to Elliott Mackle



Now in its 12th year, Georgia Grille (2290 Peachtree Road, 404-352-3517) is probably Atlanta's first serious purveyor of Southwestern food. Opening three years after Mark Miller opened the renowned Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, Georgia Grille gave Atlantans some of their first tastes of a chile-based cuisine that has become one of the nation's favorites.

The restaurant's owner and chef, Karen Hilliard is still on duty — perhaps more than ever, since her son Billy, who ran the kitchen for years, is no longer at the restaurant. Georgia Grille retains the kind of hospitable ambiance and quirkiness that one only finds in restaurants dominated by a single personality. If you don't want to attribute that to the highly personable Hilliard, you can blame artist Georgia O'Keeffe, famous for her erotic paintings of flowers, who gives her name to the restaurant.

I hadn't visited Georgia Grille in a few years when I dined there last week. The restaurant looks better than ever. Walls are painted a sultry blue and a deep yellow. Paintings hang here and there. The kitchen is completely open to view — and it's a great view of Hilliard and her staff in chef's whites. Where I believe there was once a patio, a pleasant bar room has been added with some tables. It's brighter than the main dining room, rather cantina-esque.

I confess I haven't always been happy with the restaurant's food. At times it has seemed to taste a bit like border cuisine, lacking any subtlety. At other times, I've been blown away. The current menu is certainly not very adventurous and there's quite a bit of redundancy. Poblano and chipotle cream sauces, for example, turn up in several dishes. Black beans are everywhere.

That's not to say we didn't have a good meal. My starter of a black-bean pancake topped with three grilled shrimp and the smoked poblano cream sauce ($7) was killer. The shrimp, smoky and juicy, were the best part of the dish. I liked the pancake with its crisp edges and tender center, a nice sop for the sauce, though the flavor of black beans completely eluded me. (Which is not to say I want one of those '80s-style vegan pancakes weighted with sloppy whole beans.)

Wayne ordered the classic bar food favorite: cheese-stuffed jalapenos fried in a cornmeal coating, served with black beans, salsa and sour cream ($6). I'm not typically crazy about this dish but Georgia Grille's is by far the best I've ever sampled. The jalapenos are firm, properly fiery to the palate, and the cornmeal is crunchy. The black beans work well with them.

The restaurant offers a daily special and our waiter was all about selling us Tuesday's fried catfish ($16). Wayne, for whom the word "fried" is irresistibly seductive, ordered it before the server could finish his spiel. And it lived up to the hype. The big serving of fish, topped with a very pleasant chile-spiked slaw, was served over more of the black beans and one of the cream sauces, but, hey, repetition ain't all bad.

I was tempted to test the infamous lobster enchiladas ($23) but the truth is I don't much like them. I'm a minority, I suppose, but I'd rather not eat subtle, expensive lobster with anything but butter or a very faint sauce. Instead, I ordered the menu's next-most-expensive dish, the rib-eye steak, grilled and served over — you guessed it! — black beans ($20). We laughed when the waiter walked to the table with the dish. The steak was surmounted by a tower of four huge fried onion rings that looked to my eyes like a beignet impersonating a Shriner's fez. Wayne was wide-eyed. "Dang," he said. "I wish I'd ordered the doughnut plate!"

The Black Angus steak was cooked just right, though frankly it was a bit fatty. Happily the relentless black beans in this dish featured a tomato relish that added some wonderful sweet notes to the dish.

Dessert? Black-bean cobbler, of course. Just kidding. A magnificent cobbler of peaches and blackberries with a sweet, chewy crust topped by vanilla ice cream. Our server was kind enough to note that he had watched us furiously shovel the cobbler into our mouths, not understanding that we were competing. But we found his statement nearly as gratifying as that of a waiter a few years ago at Green Shutters in Clayton. "Wow," she said. "I've never seen anyone eat everything we bring out before."

More chiles
We also visited Noche in Virginia-Highland recently (1000 Virginia Ave., 404-815-9155). It too seems to have simplified its cuisine — if not actually "Sundowned" it, by which I mean some of the dishes seem derivative of Sundown Cafe's menu. Prices seem to have dropped, too.

Wayne had the better meal here, ordering specials: a luscious yellow-tomato gazpacho with shrimp and scallops followed by a chipotle-glazed pork chop served with spicy spinach and sweet potatoes.

I did less well with the regular menu. I liked my shrimp quesadilla, spiked with roasted peppers, corn salsa and guac, but its $9.95 price seemed high. My entree, chicken enchiladas, featured a very unusual green mole which I'd happily eat with a spoon. Unfortunately, the chicken itself was dry, served with lackluster rice and some uninspired ranchero beans.

I also made it to Tierra last week (1425 Piedmont Ave., 404-874-5951) with my friend Will Bonner to test some new menu dishes. This Central and South American-inspired restaurant is, like Georgia Grille, a highly personable spot because of the chef/owners, Ticha and Dan Krinsky.

My causa del pollo — a Peruvian appetizer of chicken salad molded into lime-infused mashed potatoes — was as interesting as anything I've eaten lately, completely new to me. My entree was spectacular — seared scallops in an ancho-chile mole with toasted almonds, served over rice.

Will's salad, mixed lettuces with roasted Vidalia onions and toasted walnuts, didn't do much for me but his entree, a special of flounder under a black-olive aioli, was one of the best dishes I've ever sampled there. My only complaint is the utterly livid purple of the aioli, colliding with a mound of yellow rice.

Farewell
I am sorry to see my colleague Elliott Mackle leave Creative Loafing, but I'm very happy that it is occasioned by his new career as a writer of mystery novels.

I actually hired Elliott to write "Grazing" when I was editor of the paper back in the early 1980s. At the time I met him, he was trying his hand then at mystery writing and it's gratifying to see him find success in that.

After hiring him back in the '80s, I left for two years to manage a magazine in Houston and during that time, Elliott left CL to become dining critic at the AJC. (This left me, when I returned to edit the paper a second time, to write "Grazing" myself.) A few dishy restaurateurs used to call me Dr. Frankenstein for creating the "monster" that Elliott supposedly became at the AJC.

Elliott dragged the AJC's cuisine page out of the dark ages and his pull-no-punches style made his weekly column one of that relentlessly vapid paper's best reads. It was a pleasure to all the old-timers at CL when he rejoined the paper after leaving the AJC a few years ago.

Best wishes to my favorite critic.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??



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