Is anything as disarming as an earnest person? Take Travis, a server at Salsa Havana (749 Moreland Ave., 404-624-3105). He's young. He's enthusiastic. He is well acquainted with the menu and, looking you in the eye, makes suggestions and issues warnings. He's Waitron of the Week.
One problem: The food he's bringing to the table is mediocre at best.
So there you are, eating something the menu calls boliche. It's not boliche. Travis comes by and asks you how it is. You ask yourself: "Do I tell him boliche is supposed to be stuffed with chorizo, and these canned or frozen peas and perfectly diced carrots don't do it for me?"
No, you look at his open, sweet face and say, "It's great, thanks."
"Great!" he replies, running off to make Wayne another mojito.
Salsa is part of a po-mo strip mall called Ormewood Square on Moreland Avenue in Ormewood Park, across the street from East Atlanta Village. I call it po-mo because it's not exactly linear, but it's the same concept of a thousand other mixed-use commercial strips around the city. Salsa shares the space with several other eateries, Little Azio, Bruster's Ice Cream and a coffee shop, E2. I'll get to those in a moment.
Salsa actually features an interesting menu of mainly Cuban dishes, along with some Mexican plates. But two meals there left me very disappointed. The completely misrepresented boliche -- here just some roasted prime rib in a bland sauce -- was not the worst dish. That would be the "ceviche de camaron," a take on the popular Mexican "coctel" featuring raw seafood marinated in lime juice. This shrimp cocktail's sauce is muddy and even sweeter than the most ketchup-bound Buford Highway coctel.
You can order chips with a salsa trio. The tomatillo version is decent, as is the salsa fresca. A roasted-tomato salsa is amazingly bland and spookily similar in color to the Campbell's tomato soup your mama fed you. Queso fundido -- sizzling flavored cheese to spread on flour tortillas -- is mediocre unless you enjoy the texture of Silly Putty.
The best dishes are the simplest. Classic ropa vieja was tender and peppery. Shrimp sautéed in garlic with a bit of cilantro and lime salsa was also good. The most interesting dish, highly recommended by Travis, was duck in a chipotle sauce. He said it was the chef's favorite dish, and I think I feel the same way.
All dishes come with a choice of classic sides like black beans and rice, fried bananas and the worrisome peas and carrots. The flan is a good conclusion.
Opposite Salsa is Little Azio (404-624-0440), sister to several others and spawn of the original (defunct) Azio in Buckhead, which was a groundbreaking restaurant in its time. (The other "big" Azio remains in operation after 10 years in Peachtree Center downtown.)
Unfortunately, Little Azio suffers the same problem as Salsa. There's a great menu, a great staff -- did I mention funky, pleasant décor? -- and food that is stunningly boring.
Dude, don't serve me caprese salad made out of mozzarella that tastes like vulcanized tofu and plop it over pale pink, flavorless tomatoes at the peak of summer! And who decided to use ordinary salad greens instead of basil on this "caprese salad"?
Don't paint me a pretty word picture of a sausage pizza with arugula and present me with something that looks like a pan on which someone has hot-ironed arugula until it wilts, disguising sausage ground until it has no texture or flavor.
And be a little helpful. If I order bruschetta, why not tell me that my fettucine's "fresco tomato sauce" is identical to the bruschetta topping? Props? The sauce wasn't bad on the nicely cooked fettucine. But do you have to hurl it on the bruschetta's foccacia so I have to eat it like a dip?
I skipped the tiramisu and rounded the corner to Bruster's. This chain of walk-up ice-cream shops is popping up all over the city and for good reason. While the shops lack the homey feeling of, say, Hank's and Jake's, the ice cream is far better than you expect from something that, somewhere in the back of your mind, evokes the words: "You are standing at a window, just like you did when you were 16 at the Dairy Queen on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs."
Each Bruster's makes up to 38 flavors a day from mixes and fresh ingredients. I ordered a combo of white turtle and toffee -- lots of caramel, crunch and creaminess. Wayne ordered key lime pie after forcing the attendant to feed him little spoonfuls of samples while waiting customers tapped their feet and glared. Ah, the life of an only child!
My final visit at Ormewood Square was to E2 Coffee House (404-622-8104). Okay, I confess I hang out nearly daily at the Ansley Starbucks, principally because I know so many people there and it's close to my gym. I will also admit that I find Starbucks' brewed coffee undrinkable. I also find the lattes amazingly stingy in their quantity of espresso. So I usually drink tea, juice or a triple espresso. Did I mention that most of the pastries are commercial flotsam?
Further stupidity on my part: I pay $30 a month for the WiFi connection there, when such connections are free at most independent coffee houses. But I like the staff, I like seeing friends and I like the comfortable furniture. Hell, I wrote my doctoral dissertation there.
I wish E2 appealed to me. It's independent and there's free WiFi, but the plush orange and emerald-green upholstery and the tables -- too tiny for my 17-inch Powerbook -- annoy me. The worst part? The brewed coffee is probably the worst I have ever tasted in a coffee shop. Even the espresso in a latte was amazingly weak and off-flavor.
Positives? Great pastries, a couple of computers for walk-in use and occasional entertainment.
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