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Southwestern survivor 

Demise-proof Nava still seduces with chile-spiked flair

My, my, how the time does fly. Wasn't it just yesterday we were all wearing clunky black shoes, watching "Seinfeld," reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil ... and eating Southwestern food?

The cuisine inspired by the American Southwest -- chock-full o' blue corn, black beans and chipotle chiles -- first emerged in the late '80s, but hit its stride in the stock market-fueled '90s. Ambitious chefs hungry for new material transformed the humble regional fare into something sophisticated and festive. The combination of earthy, softly spicy and sweet tastes married well with the squiggly plate designs and architectural ingredient stacking trends of the times. And though it has currently been replaced on the pedestal of popularity by the banana leaf-wrapped stylings of "authentic" Mexican cuisine, Southwestern has been firmly entrenched in the lexicon of the nation's palate. It's here for the duration.

Case in point: I called Nava on a recent Friday afternoon for reservations that night, only to be told that the earliest time slot available was 9:30 p.m. Dang. I had no idea Buckhead's stalwart Southwestern institution, opened in 1995, was still in such high demand. The woman on the phone suggested we swing by early and take our chances with the first-come-first-serve patio.

If you show up on a balmy night, eating outside at Nava can be an atypical pleasure. There isn't a whole lot of people-watching at the car-jammed intersection of Peachtree and West Paces Ferry, but there's good building-watching. What have they renamed that club across the street now? The huge angled fountain ripples from a magical breeze that, were I a cynical soul, I'd say seems created by wind machines hidden among the nearby trees by the Buckhead Life Group, Nava's imperious owner.

Inside, the tri-tiered dining room dazzles with its adobe chic frippery. The amethyst chandeliers, the frolicking Kokopelli figures, the hanging Navajo rugs and the flowering cactuses still cast their Southwest mystique. It's amazing that it all looks so pristine.

Many of Nava's original culinary showstoppers remain as well. The coral-colored Prickly Pear Margarita arouses the palate and revs you up for an evening of fun food. Crusty Sonoma Jack cheese fritters gush in all the right ways, and yes, the red chile jelly still numbs your tongue with its cloying sweetness. Blue cornbread sticks arrive at the table so hot that chunks of butter seep right in when you spread them on top with your knife.

The menu here, like most Southwestern restaurants, is really New American cuisine with a chile-infused POV. Are parmesan polenta, risotto and Maytag blue cheese slaw indigenous to New Mexico and Arizona? Hardly. But you just go along for the ride and hope the imaginative combinations work.

Smoked chicken tacos work. Crispy tortillas are stuffed with silken green chile grits that make for surprisingly satisfying corn-on-corn action, topped with shredded chicken. Venison loin paired with a Vidalia onion-potato gratin in a demi-glace laced with blackberries is classic Dad food, and it's wonderful. The meat is tender and the chefs judiciously avoid making the sauce syrupy.

Spicy tuna tartare totopos (totopos is the Spanish word for tortilla chips) reminds me of a Santa Fe variation of something that would have been served at Soto down the street. The tuna is ground to the consistency of pate, poised on the chips and dotted with colorful sauces. It's the only thing I've tried here that really hits you with the spice. Grilled flank steak with chipotle BBQ is an upscale rendering of fajitas. You get flour tortillas, roasted rings of onion and a dollop of guacamole with which to roll up the meat. Chili's, eat your heart out.

If you order dishes such as the above, meals here can be spirited, unhackneyed experiences. Take a wrong turn, though, and you can end up with gimmicky dishes with little more than corporate gloss. Green chile and lobster taco, served as an appetizer at dinner and an entree at lunch, is packed with lobster bits, but the sauce tastes like seafood Newburg from my frozen-food childhood. Similarly, white corn-Asiago nachos could have been a polished take on the classic party food, but the "quesa cotija fundido" sauce they've come up with tastes like Velveeta with a pinch of cayenne in it. The kitchen needs to rethink this one. (By the way, have you picked up yet from the descriptions that, in textbook '90s fashion, the menu offers a laundry list of ingredients for each dish? Ah, the good old days).

By the time your ultra-polite server scrapes away the blue corn crumbs from the tablecloth and offers dessert, you may be stuffed. The portions, particularly at dinner, are considerable. Trudge on anyway. The Georgia peach crumb cake is exactly what summer ordered, particularly when matched with dulce de leche ice cream (a very now flavor, I might add). The roasted banana enchilada, a Nava signature, still intrigues with that gently chewy, banana fruit roll-up "tortilla" shell. But my favorite dessert was a recent special of orange-lemon sorbet in a melon-champagne soup. Complex in its fruitiness, it was an ideal, graceful end to the meal.

OK, so it's evident this place still has a few tricks up its turquoise-studded sleeve. Long live the black bean brigade. The '90s weren't so bad anyway, were they?

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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