After catching a third glimpse of the hostess's thong creeping up past the waistband of her pants, my friend throws out that zinger, nearly sending a stream of caipirinha shooting out of my nose.
I've embarked on a second visit to Che with a fervent desire to like the place. After a disappointing Friday evening first run, I've returned on a Saturday night hoping to catch a bit of the flirty energy the new tapas bar's promotions have tantalizingly offered. But the scene is little different than before. A sparsely occupied seating area is populated with folks who, much like us, are vying for a bit of rum-induced fun and aren't finding it. The same Tejano songs blare over the sound system. Meant to spark a little sizzle in the air, the jarring accordion music is more of an inducement to nibble quickly and leave than to linger and shake booty. And shake booty the hostess does, her underpants peepshow fitting right into the eternal spring break that is central Buckhead.
I like Che's selling point -- that tapas and rum drinks are affordable accelerants for a night of managed craziness. No one's more sold on the promise of a great tapas bar than me, despite nearly four years of traveling throughout Spain and eating at such joints as if each bite were my first and last. I like Che's long drinks list. I love the pisco sours and the Hemingway mojito of dark rum and cava (loaded shotgun not included). I like thoughtful, well-selected wine as well.
Occupying the space formerly known as Blais, the interior remains somewhat intact, reincarnated in red and canary yellow. The banquette splitting the seating area in half remains, as do the palm fronds poking out of planters stationed at the top of the banquettes. Glossy red has been interpreted here as the very essence of all things Latino. The color, meant to lend a sexy, scintillating touch, instead makes the spot feel fake and plastic. I wince at the feel of bare shoulders stuck to the red Naugahyde banquette like thighs on a hot car seat. I cringe at the vision of the ceiling painted in a swirling design, like Peter Max on a bad peyote trip. I nearly expect a server to burst through a door with a triumphant "Aiiii-yai-yai!" -- her lighter aloft to set a tequila shot on fire.
Such a spectacle is all the more disheartening when it has a chef of Gerry Klaskala's caliber behind it. Che, the third and latest Klaskala-George McKerrow Jr.-Ron San Martin venture, is so far away in quality from the partnership's gorgeous Aria that it seems to exist on another planet. The menu reads thrillingly, yet the tapas arrive at the table with a thud. Chef Carvel Grant Gould's kitchen aims for pizzazz, but plates such as the wet, dull, flat iron steak with a piquillo pepper sauce fail to excite.
Drinks come closer to hitting the mark, yet still miss by a thin margin. Mojitos lack the refreshing mint kiss that makes them such easy, sinful sipping. Instead, they're overpowered with a heavy hand of lime. I appreciate the caipirinhas' potency, but they're a touch too sweet.
The menu offers tapas from $3 to $7, entrees at $14 and Kathryn King's desserts at a bargain-priced $5. The snack-size hamburgers called "frita" are cute, and the crispy shoestring potatoes wedged between patty and bun are a nice, cheeky touch. But the meat is sproingy in the manner of breakfast sausage and overdosed with cumin. Battered, fried skate is mushy, served sitting in a pool of grease with an uninspiring smoked paprika mojo. Queso fundido entices with the addition of cava and accompanying malanga and plantain chips, but the cheese dip is gloppy and recalls too closely the versions you'll find at any Mexican restaurant.
One of the menu's tics is the description of fried items as "crisped," a term probably better left for revived lettuce. To name a couple, there's crisped potatoes and crisped calamari, which aren't crisp at all. Lightly breaded and forlornly soft, the calamari are served in a cone with aioli in desperate need of more garlic. Goat cheese fritters with romesco are a bit too pasty for my taste, but their crunchy breading provides nutty contrast to the goaty, creamy tang.
Gould seems to be treading into unfamiliar territory with the bulk of the tapas we sampled. I want and expect the plates to throb with clean, vibrant flavors, but they taste like products of an unsure hand that lacks familiarity with the ingredients and techniques of Cuban and Spanish cuisines. Flavors and textures are as muddy as the inspiration they're drawn from. On the menu, sea bass a la plancha sends my heartstrings a-twanging. But the larger plate doesn't deliver the rich, buttery fish seared on a cast iron skillet that I expect. It's mushy -- moist to the point of sogginess, really -- and sadly accompanied by grilled but limp green onions.
The roasted chicken is a hit, however. With a bacon-crispy skin and tender meat, the half-bird is a classic from the Mediterranean heyday of the '90s, which suggests Gould's talents and knowledge are better suited to another type of cuisine entirely.
Che's Serrano ham on tomato-rubbed bread is an unexpected pleasure. Although the ham's robust, salty flavor would be better served in thicker, hand-carved slices, its simple beauty begs a question: What about straight-up Spanish tapas? Why not serve patatas bravas (spicy potato wedges) in place of boring "crisped" potatoes? How about gambas a la plancha, or ham croquettes? If anyone could pull off such a feat, it would be Klaskala. Aria is clear proof of Klaskala's knack for assembling a talented kitchen crew and a smooth front-of-the-house staff. The elegant cuisine at Aria shines for its unfussiness.
Atlanta's undisputed pastry chef rock star, Kathryn King, lends her brilliance to the sweets at Che. The warm chocolate cake, flan and tres leches cupcake we try are wonderful ending notes to the meal, though they lack the same sexy, playful edge that makes her desserts at Aria such a heart-pounding experience.
To promote a menu, as Che does, as inspired by the cuisines of Cuba and Spain, there is a certain amount of knowledge of the food cultures you're blending and packaging into an amalgamated product labeled "Latino." Clumsy execution in the kitchen and polite, yet rushed and far too familiar service sink this tapas bar. Perhaps simpler fare that hems closer to the authentic Spanish tapas tradition would be better served by the kitchen's skills. Now that would be a concept.
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