Actually, though, tapas-style dining is taking off big-time in Atlanta. Andaluz, despite the weird contrast of its kinky decor and conservative menu, has been a breakthrough in our city. Loca Luna and Mambo have also educated Atlantans in the art of grazing on small portions of dishes that offer a medley of flavors.
Now, the tapas scene in Atlanta has taken a quantum leap forward with the opening of Pura Vida (404-870-9797). This eccentric, mainly Puerto-Rican restaurant is located at 654 N. Highland Ave., near North Avenue. Earlier tenants have not done well here, but my visit opening night, the day before I left for Sevilla, tells me that the owners could have put their testimony to "pure life" in the basement of a Cabbagetown hut and people would still flock to it.
The owners are Leslie and Hector Santiago. The couple moved here from New York about five years ago to work for the Peasant restaurants -- Hector to cook and Leslie to became a manager of City Grill. Hector, the chef at Pura Vida, is from Puerto Rico and is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
The restaurant looks great. It's a bit dark with burnt orange walls and brick wainscoting, a cartoony mural and a decent bar left from the earlier tenant (though it isn't the kind of bar where you want to sit and sample tapas). Service was surprisingly good for a day-one visit and our server Laura is herewith declared Waitron of the Week. She was amazingly well-educated in the restaurant's rather esoteric cuisine, able to recite the ingredients and lineage of each dish.
Don't get hung up on the issue of "authenticity" here. Of course, tapas originally were meant as snacks served with wine but they have developed into an independent cuisine, meaning they are constantly subjected to experimentation. Although I am certainly a fan of the traditional tapas in Sevilla, I also love trying new inventions that the local chefs develop in a very competitive spirit.
Although Pura Vida serves four entrees -- paella, Cornish hen, a hanger steak and fried fish -- I only sampled the tapas. All were delicious and inexpensive. Chayote al habanero, very spicy pickles made of chayote squash, should definitely be ordered for snacking throughout your meal ($4). They function as a perfect palate cleanser.
Calabaza soup is made with another type of squash, rather pumpkin-like, and is served in a cappuccino cup with a bit of milk froth, garnished with pumpkin seeds ($4). It has a great, peppery sting. The 7 Potencia Stew is described as an aphrodisiac ($7). It's loaded with shellfish and chunks of fish in a light broth. Do not fail to order monfongo en caldo de trufas ($7). It's plantains mashed until creamy but to which the contrast of cracklings has been added; it's also spiked with truffle broth. Yeah, it is aphrodisiacal.
Perhaps the only dish I didn't find much to my liking was the cod fritters with aioli ($6). Maybe I am spoiled by Sevilla, where two restaurants within a few blocks of my apartment specialize in bacalao. But the cod in Pura Vida's fritters is in any case almost flavorless. Skip 'em. There's also a generous plate of Serrano ham with manchego, olives and piquillo peppers; oysters on the half shell with mojito; chicken brochettes; and a Napoleon of duck layered with sweet plantain.
The restaurant is even serving churros con chocolate, which I despise even here in Sevilla, but I loved the restaurant's weird rice pudding -- almost oatmeal-like in texture with heavy doses of coconut milk, raisins and toasted almonds ($5).
Don't miss it. Incidentally, if rumors are correct, we are likely to see several more tapas spots opening around town, including a second one by the Santiagos in Midtown.
Many of the world's cuisines offer grazing-style fare. Chinese dim-sum is an example. The Koreans start their meals with a huge assortment of snacks. The Turks have their mezze platters. And then there's Mediterranean Eno on Peachtree, whose bar serves some of the most interesting Euro-style grazing fare in town.
Recently, Wayne and I sampled a remarkable dish of diver scallops with seared foie gras over honey-caramelized Bosc pear slices and onion compote, drizzled with balsamic vinegar ($14). The chef could teach a few others around town about balancing sweetness in this classic dish.
You should also try the Provencal-style fried chickpeas and crispy anchovy-stuffed olives ($3.25) and the pancakes made with shrimp, chickpea flower, seaweed, onion and parsley ($6). Brochettes of marinated lamb are garlicky and served with a Middle Eastern-style blend of cucumber and yogurt. A vegetable terrine with roasted peppers, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and tapenade is better than the best work of the average vegan cook in Atlanta ($9.50). Finally, if it's available, do not miss the Provencal-style sheep's milk ice cream touched with lavender. Absolutely perfect. I could dine here nightly.
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