"Not only is the food locally sourced," I noted, "but the female clientele is gorgeous and wears stiletto heels unseen in their sheer height since Joan Crawford staggered around in stilettos in Female on the Beach."
I know. That sounds really gay, but my friend Rose D'Agostino and I both dropped our jaws as we watched the callipygian parade of stiletto-shod women at Eleven, the new restaurant inside Midtown's Loews Atlanta Hotel (1065 Peachtree St., 404-745-5000). We didn't know women still wore such devices of torture.
But Eleven, like most hotel restaurants these days, is sensual if nothing. Although many recently opened hotel restaurants have had to downsize or become more affordable, luxury hotels and the restaurants that accompany them persist in opening despite the economy. And many of them are quite good, even if they exact the toll of high prices and foot pain.
Eleven (named after the street it faces), unfortunately, is not among the upper echelon of hotel restaurants. It makes much out of employing local and organic ingredients in a menu that features some strong Southern influences. But much of the food is mediocre, and "odd" comes up as a fitting descriptor now and then.
Take the "dip" made of Red Mule grits from Mills Farm in Athens. Our server, Eddie, actually told us that there wouldn't be enough of the vegetable chips served with it to scoop up the entire bowl. Actually, the grits themselves, with a pool of smoked ham hock jus, were creamy-good. But the vegetable chips weren't even of the quality you buy in a bag on the potato chip aisle at Publix. Nor were they big enough to scoop up the grits. Nor, as Eddie promised, were there enough of them. He brought more, but I gave up. Plan to eat it with a spoon or skip it.
At Wayne's insistence, we ordered a duck confit pizzetta to share along with the grits as a starter. In a city that has become obsessed with high-quality pizza, this is passé in its cardboardy crust and bland toppings, notwithstanding the lovely (total of) two basil leaves placed on the same slice of pizza.
Our entrées were better. Rose made the best choice with a special of huge scallops, nicely seared and placed over grilled vegetables with chopped braised short ribs. I found the combination barely successful but the scallops redeemed the odd allusion to surf n' turf. I did like my own dish – slices of molasses-glazed pork tenderloin (from Fudge Farm), over braised collards, sweet potatoes and a tarragon infusion. I'm usually not big on sweet pork dishes, but the collards provided an ideal dose of bitterness to keep the dish from becoming cloying.
Wayne ordered a strange-appearing smoked chicken entrée. Half the portion was boned and rolled around basil. As best I could figure, this was a poulet rouge from North Carolina and, as such, was very moist throughout. I say the dish was strange-appearing because it was dominated by a casserole bowl of gnocchi made with cornmeal. I liked it well enough, although I thought the chicken's tarragon lemon juice needed a sharper edge. Wayne liked it fine, though.
I was feeling better about our dinner after the entrées. (And I should add that this is yet another restaurant serving up gigantic portions.) But dessert sent us spinning back to mediocrity. We ordered a single portion of the red velvet "napoleon" with pecan-yogurt ice cream. The latter was sweet, sour, nutty, yummy. The napoleon – three thin disks of chocolate layered with cream-cheese-iced cake – was a mess. First, there was no way to shatter the chocolate disks and get them on a spoon or fork. Second, the icing was too thick for the thin layers of cake. We left a third of it behind ... and, believe me, that's rare.
Executive chef here is Olivier Gaupin and chef de cuisine is James Ross. Look closely at the menu and you'll notice that a good many dishes are marked with a tiny asterisk. That means they are on the menu at other Loews hotels and were not developed by the local chefs. Theirs are definitely the more interesting dishes, although I have no explanation for why the starters and dessert are so far behind the entrées.
The restaurant, which has a very spare look, adjoins a bar that was quite busy during our visit. Despite the glamorously shod women who strutted past our table, you'll be quite comfortable casually dressed. Prices are reasonable. Most entrées are less than $22 and starters, meant to be shared, are $14 or less.
A bargain at Pura Vida
The Great Recession is taking a brutal toll on many restaurants, but diners with $16 can clean up on Sunday night. That's when Hector Santiago, owner-chef of Pura Vida (656 N. Highland Ave., 404-870-9797), offers his Cena Latina – "Latino supper."
For $16, the former "Top Chef" contestant offers a salad course, an entrée and a dessert. The rather ordinary tossed salad and the banana cupcake didn't blow my socks off last week, but my entrée did. Santiago's gimmick is offering a choice of a riff on a traditional rice dish.
My first choice – black beans and white rice pan fried and served with cumin-oregano lamb and pork belly pinchos – was unavailable by the time we arrived. But I couldn't have been happier with my roasted pork and banana leaf stuffed with rice and pigeon peas. The pork, crispy and succulent, reminded me of well-made carnitas. The rice had an almost risotto-like texture. A touch of pickled aji dulce, a fruity but rather piquant chile, tempered the richness.
Wayne ordered a witty dish whose three rices were seasoned to replicate the colors of the Mexican flag – one with (green) cilantro, another with (white) queso anejo crema and the last with (red) achiote. But the star of the dish was chunks of savory barbacoa hiding under a layer of thin-sliced raw radishes.
Among the other rice dishes was a chorizo and seafood paella, coconut rice with fried tilapia and egg-fried rice with Peruvian vegetables.
Diners also get to select two side dishes to be shared by the table. We selected marinated cauliflower with sautéed onions and baby chard scattered with crispy fried garlic. Plantains were available caramelized or twice-fried.
Seriously, this is a bargain you don't want to pass up.
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