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Revising opinions on revisiting Pura Vida and Star Steaks

Recently, I ran into a Creative Loafing ad rep at a restaurant.

Oh, you like this place, huh?" she said. "So do I."

"Actually, I find it bad to mediocre," I said. "I'm here, hoping it's improved, but it hasn't."

"Oh, Cliff, just go home and don't say a word," she said, joking.

"Really," I said, "I'm sick of writing negative reviews."

"Well, our clients are sick of them too!" she said. "They hate you."

I'm telling you that story for two reasons. First, the advertising department at CL really does not interfere with the critics, and I always feel lucky when they speak to me instead of spitting at me. (One of them last week told me that he'd just returned from Nice and now understood me. "You are French in an American body," he said. "You love pleasure and you don't suffer fools." Yeah, that's it!)

The second reason for telling you this story is to assure you that I do make a point of revisiting restaurants frequently, even when I feel fairly certain it's going to be unpleasant. This week's column is, in fact, devoted to reversals of a good review and a bad one.

I wrote a rave review of Pura Vida (656 N. Highland Ave., 404-870-9797), a new restaurant in the Poncey-Highland section more than a month ago. I had a killer meal, feasting on the restaurant's interesting tapas-style presentation of Puerto Rican cuisine. Indeed, I was bold enough to suggest it might be the best of the multiplying tapas restaurants in our city.

The day after I dined there, I left town for a month, came back and found myself with a bunch of e-mail from readers and calls from friends. Without exception, they wondered if I had eaten at some Pura Vida other than the one they went to. Honestly, I've never had such disagreement over a restaurant.

So, Wayne and I returned last week and, yes, I was stunned by the decrease in quality. We did not broadly sample the tapas, and I did enjoy a special of marinated anchovies over tomatoes, but the three other dishes we sampled were poor. Monfongo, which earlier was a comparatively light puree of plantains with some cracklings, had turned into an unappetizingly greasy mass full of pork. The truffle broth was completely overcome by the pork fat.

We sampled two entrees. The hanger steak was buried in a yucca frita that was the most unpleasant I've ever tasted. Maybe Puerto Ricans fry cassava differently from Cubans, but I suggest the chef visit Mambo or Las Palmeras for a better recipe. The steak itself was tasty enough but was drenched in a very unpleasantly bitter sauce. I asked what it was and was told it was just a beef reduction, which told me I was exactly right when I told Wayne that it tasted scorched.

Wayne ordered a whole fried fish. It, like the steak, was fine by itself. But it was served with an obnoxious over-limed sauce and cole slaw full of mint. The cole slaw was interesting but really did not work with the other flavors on the plate.

What a disappointment!

We also returned to Star Steaks and BBQ (1397 N. Highland, 404-876-0676) last week. This re-do of the old Indigo location by Tom Catherall was a big disappointment to me, from its Dubya ambiance and corporate exterior to its bland menu. I received a few angry e-mails from supporters of the restaurant accusing me of nostalgia for Indigo. I had no idea where that came from until we sat at our table last week.

"So, you've changed the menu. How come?" I asked our server, Nick.

"Because everyone complained constantly that they wanted Indigo back," he told me.

Sure enough, some Indigo favorites have returned, like the fish in parchment, and the menu has been revised for the second time to include more seafood, more starters and kinkier flavors. There's also a daily menu of specials.

Although the effect of eating Indigo-inspired food under the gaze of a steer head -- the decor hasn't changed -- is a bit schizophrenic, we did find the food improved. Gazpacho with crab and avocado, a special, was a huge serving, zippy and fresh. I also liked the other starter of the day: very tender beef kabobs with a simple guacamole and a cup of warm roasted corn in a piquant red sauce.

Wayne's barbecued salmon filet over jalapeno grits, a regular menu item, couldn't have been better cooked. Though I've never been fond of red barbecue sauces on fish, I'd order this again. The grits could have been creamier. I ordered the day's parchment, tilapia with julienned squash in a very faint pesto. Roasted potatoes were undercooked for the most part and I was unsure whether to use the tasty charred-tomato butter on them or my tilapia. Since the pesto was so faint, the butter ended up on the fish.

You can still order Indigo's famous key lime pie, but we chose to cross the street to lick gelato at What's the Scoop?

It's a definite improvement and bound to get better. New staff has been hired and Nick, herewith declared Waitron of the Week, gets high marks for his honesty and attentive service.

Contact Cliff Bostock at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, with your restaurant tips and comments.

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