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Good-bye, Big Ass Joe 

Agave brings southwestern cuisine to Cabbagetown

It was quite a shock a month ago to drive by Eureka on Boulevard in Cabbagetown and find it closed. Barely open a year, the restaurant never seemed to hit its stride. The food never got better than mediocre. But the beginning of the end for me was the appearance of a fictional character named "Big Ass Joe" in its marketing material. Nobody will ever accuse me of being dignified, but taking culinary recommendations from someone named Big Ass Joe ranked below chomping on a McWhaler with Ronald McDonald.

Replacing Big Ass Joe's restaurant is Agave (242 Boulevard, 404-588-0006), which features Southwestern cuisine and takes its name from the plant from which tequila is made. The owner and chef is Jack Sobel, formerly one of the partners in the two Fratelli di Napoli restaurants. Before that he was manager of Tiburon Grill.

Sobel, who grew up in the hospitality industry, lived in New Mexico quite a while, and his new restaurant pays homage to that experience. Eureka's decor, has been shipped off to Big Ass Joe's trailer and a bit of Georgia O'Keeffe has been moved in. The bar has been played up and for good reason. It features an amazing selection of tequilas and some pricey blended margaritas.

The menu is a reminder of how incestuous culinary life is in Atlanta. It features dishes you'll also see at Sundown and Noche. When I first saw the menu, I assumed that Michael Longshore, formerly chef of Sundown, had consulted. It includes, after all, a crawfish pasta that I vaguely remember eating at Sundown, along with some other chile-spiked fusion dishes typical of Longshore (who is now a dining critic for Access Atlanta). But then there's also a cayenne fried chicken breast that made me think of a similar dish on the menu at Noche.

At lunch at Sundown recently, I also had a fried chicken breast served over mashed potatoes and remarked aloud that the dish was at Noche and the new Agave now, too. I was assured that it had actually originated with Eddie Hernandez, executive chef for Sundown. Then, as I dined on the crawfish pasta at Agave, Sobel told me that Longshore had not consulted on the menu but had, in fact, worked with him at Tiburon and had learned some of his dishes there.

Does this matter as more than gossip? I think so. As creative dishes get repeated and become standardized and mainstreamed, they start to lose their character.

I like Agave, and God knows we need serious restaurants over here in the Grant Park area. But I'm troubled when my server promises me that the food in a Southwestern restaurant is "not too spicy" and warns me about dishes that turn out to be virtually bland.

The fried chicken ($9.50) is a good example. The crust is not the least bit peppery, despite the cayenne seasoning. Moreover, it is served over very dry mashed potatoes and leaves you parched. At Sundown, the dish is heavily sauced with a spicy gravy dotted with some hot chile sauce. The Japanese-style breading even has some sweet notes. At Agave, to its credit, the sweet notes are carried by some roasted corn added to the plate, but they aren't played against sufficient heat.

On the other hand, two soups on Agave's starter menu have terrific depth and complexity. The posole ($5) is the traditional, made with a good pork broth and hominy. But I prefer the excellent green chile stew ($5.75), piquant and full of pork and potatoes. It is thinner than Sundown's version but a nice variation. My only complaint is the stingy serving. The server will tell you quite accurately that it's served in a big bowl. He won't mention how shallow the bowl is.

Mussels in a guajillo red chile broth ($8) are disappointing. The broth is tasty enough, though not as interesting (or blistering!) as the one Tom Catherall uses at Noche. Most of the mussels in my bowl were significantly overcooked. On the other hand, I have found the seared tuna with a serrano-citrus vinaigrette over salad greens ($7.50) excellent. I also liked the tequila-smoked salmon ($8.50).

Entrees generally don't seem to fare as well as starters. You should avoid at all costs the tostadas topped with shredded pork ($8). Gooped with cheddar cheese, guac and sour cream, they are way too close to the Tex-Mex produced at fast-food joints. Mountain trout with a citrus-lime vinaigrette ($12) is served over forgettable Spanish rice and desperately needs some chiles. But if you want a competent yet relatively bland dish, you'll like it.

The crawfish pasta ($12) is tasty, maybe the best dish I've sampled, and the blackened grilled chicken over rice with black beans ($9) is acceptable if you're feeling nostalgic. Halibut tomatillo over black beans and rice ($14) would be excellent if the tomatillo sauce were increased about 500 percent. I literally couldn't find more than a few dollops hidden on the plate.

Other dishes here include smoked chicken and green chile enchiladas, apple and walnut chicken salad, tacos filled with green chiles and pork and a filet mignon seasoned with ancho chiles. There are a few vegetarian entrees, including a bean and rice burrito and some black bean cakes. I have not sampled desserts.

I applaud Sobel's ambition in undertaking a Southwestern restaurant in a city that has embraced this cuisine at Sundown, Nava, Noche and Georgia Grille. I think, though, that he is underestimating the need for novelty and our capacity to enjoy more adventurous flavors. If you live in the Grant Park area, by all means visit, but give Sobel your feedback. He is affable and anxious to give the area a good restaurant. Certainly, his experience at Fratelli di Napoli and Tiburon indicate his sincerity in that respect.

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