Food - Glutton at Large: Rosa Mexicano, Southern Art, the Optimist

Revisiting old favorites in the new year

Wednesday January 8, 2014 04:00 am EST

Sometime last year, I complained on Twitter that no new and exciting restaurants were opening in Atlanta at the time. Local chef Hugh Acheson promptly fired back — and I am paraphrasing here — perhaps I should revisit my favorites and stop whining. Since that conversation, I have made a concerted effort to revisit old favorites and retry places that didn't wow me at first. Sometimes my initial impression has been validated and other times I have been surprised. Sometimes it is nice to know a favorite dish is just as good as you remember or that a spot has added cool things to the menu.

To start, I stopped by Rosa Mexicano (245 18th St., 404-347-4090, www.rosamexicano.com) before ice-skating one night at Atlantic Station. I have been a staunch supporter of Rosa since it opened. My friends chalk it up to my Mexican background and that may contribute something. This food reminds me of dishes I ate growing up in Mexico City. Though there are offerings such as overpriced tableside guacamole and chips and salsa — albeit a smokier and tastier salsa than the normal watery, red mess you get at Tex-Mex spots — the rest of the menu holds relatively authentic dishes such as enchiladas suizas (enchiladas covered in Swiss cheese with tomatillo sauce) that you will not find at any other Mexican restaurant in Atlanta (even Buford Highway). One of my favorites, the budin de pollo (chicken pie), looks like a free-form lasagna made with layers of corn tortillas, pulled pieces of chicken, julienned poblano peppers, and gooey melted Chihuahua cheese. The entire budin is bathed in a bright green poblano sauce with just enough kick to make it interesting and even more cheese, broiled until it's bubbly and brown. This and every other entrée comes with family-style Mexican rice and creamy refried black beans that they'll refill until your stomach sends up a white flag. For many, paying higher prices for swanky Mexican food seems weird, but Rosa sources local produce when possible and the overall quality of the ingredients surpasses the flavorless commercial stuff you get at most Mexican restaurants. If cost is still a deterrent, any of the tacos are a budget-friendly option where you make a meal out of crispy pieces of fried fish nestled in flour tortillas with cabbage slaw and jalapeño tartar sauce or duck cooked in pear and a guajillo chile salsa. Rosa Mexicano also has an outdoor to-go restaurant where you can grab a quick lunch of tacos, nachos, or maybe a margarita on the rocks.

When chef Art Smith, of Oprah Winfrey and D.C. fame, opened Southern Art in 2010 (3315 Peachtree Road, 404-946-9070, www.southernart.com) in the old Au Pied de Cochon space, Atlanta collectively rolled its eyes. Another Southern restaurant and in a hotel no less? No thanks. Fast-forward to this year, my husband and I found ourselves there for dinner in a quiet and empty Southern Art and hoped for the best. Being a complete slut for biscuits, the crumbly tea biscuit bread service set the evening off right. My husband and I shared an assortment of hams with homemade crackers and whole-grain mustard from the impressive ham bar (an oasis of hanging and displayed hams near the restaurant's entrance) with our favorite being the Surryano (a play on Spanish Serrano) from Virginia. Each ham you order comes with a piece of paper detailing its origins — a nice touch. For dinner, I went with the fried chicken. It is the type with that nubby battered crust just like the Colonnade or Busy Bee. The kitchen has made some serious improvements since opening as this is one of the better platters of fried chicken I've had in Atlanta. The juicy breast was imbued with tons of seasoning from the brine, the crust was crisp and not greasy, and the mound of mashed potatoes it was nestled on was creamy and smooth. Southern Art's slow-cooked pork shank with collard greens and a bourbon gravy is both tender and refined. A side of mac and cheese was gooey, creamy, and not greasy at all despite its abundance of cheddar cheese. It's a great place for Southern brunch standards like shrimp and grits and cornmeal pancakes and it also has special spreads for holidays like Christmas if you are looking for something fancy to do with the family. The bourbon bar is not to be missed after your meal, either. The barkeeps are friendly and knowledgeable without the slightest hint of pretension.

The Optimist (914 Howell Mill Road, 404-477-6260, www.theoptimistrestaurant.com) has become my "treat yourself" lunch when I don't want to go whole hog and eat some seafood that isn't all battered and fried. A good craft beer, a dozen ice-cold West Coast oysters accompanied by the restaurant's flaky, homemade crackers and Tabasco, the buttery homemade rolls, and maybe the current incarnation of the cobb salad (most recently topped with grilled shrimp and a puckery vinegar dressing) and I am happy girl. A better dish for sharing is the generous plate of juicy fried oysters or the most recent and destination-worthy dish: the chowder fries. Our server explained one of the chefs hails from Quebec and wanted to put a poutine-inspired dish on the menu. The kitchen slathers french fries (not homemade although they should be) with homemade clam chowder full of fresh-tasting pieces of clams and finishes it with shredded white cheddar and chunks of smoky bacon. As much as you'll want to eat it with you fingers, this is a fork and spoon kind of dish. Even though the restaurant has been open for a couple of years, reservations for dinner can still be hard to come by, but you can eat a full meal at the bar or just make a meal at the oyster bar.

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