Tierra: Pied-à-terre 

Latin American influences offer diners an intown getaway

Why didn't someone tell me about Tierra? After all my whining about the lack of small, funky, authentic places in Atlanta, you'd think someone would have attempted to muzzle me by recommending this place.

Of course, I've read about Tierra, in these very pages, and kind of forgotten to pay attention for one reason or another. Perhaps it's because I made the mistake of thinking that the food – Latin American-influenced – was homestyle but not actually authentic. I imagined capable but watered-down versions of dishes that are better found in shacks on Buford Highway. I imagined tacky South American decor in an otherwise bland room. Who knows why?

The reality is that Tierra is serious, chef-driven, comfortable and sincere – the kind of place that feels like a little getaway within your own city.

Everything about Tierra screams authenticity, from its funny, almost hokey neon sign adorning the yellow building on Piedmont Avenue, to the industrial/homestyle decor (now there's a combination the Johnson Studio would never have thought up), to the tenderly prepared Latin American dishes. It is a truly genuine restaurant, fueled by the love of two cooks with a passion for the foods of Central and South America.

Dan and Ticha Krinsky have been utilizing this passion for more than eight years now, and business seems to be slow and steady. It's obvious the restaurant has some very loyal customers, many greeting the staff by name, but at 8 p.m. on a Thursday evening the small dining room can be barely half-full.

This is a crime; less than half a mile away, customers are scrambling to get a table at the latest mediocre hot spot, and here at Tierra a hearts of palm tart is held together by – what? – cream? A tangy, creamy, custardlike substance that melts and pools on the plate is going unsold. I resist the urge to order 15 servings to keep it from going to waste, and instead fantasize about strutting into one of the overpriced, underinspired joints up the road and knocking the patrons' heads together – "Drop the pink martini! There are hearts of palm tarts up the road, you fools!"

Sigh.

Tierra has won some national recognition for its mussels, which come in a fresh, acidic and addictive broth specked with sweet, crunchy corn and jicama. Some mornings I wake up and resolve to live on mussels from now on, and these days Tierra's mussels are the ones I think of.

But if I had to stray from my mussels-only diet, the pionono would be a nice place to start. Beef picadillo is wrapped in soft, sweet, caramelized plantain, which produces an intoxicatingly rich blend of savory and sweet, creamy and juicy. The pupusas are authentic but a little bit bland.

The chicken breast entree changes weekly and was served a couple of weeks ago as a combination of coconut, cashews and cilantro, making for a dish that could easily bring to mind Thai cuisine but instead brightly evokes the tropics. A relish that accompanies a juicy pork loin combines dried papaya and pineapple, reconstituted with lime juice. The result is a bright-red, fleshy mixture that will have you thinking you've discovered the fruit of the gods.

There is an occasional misstep, such as scallops one night that were way oversalted. But more often you'll come across a dish – perhaps a hearty lentil stew under a flaky corvina fillet – that tastes like a doting South American mother made it for you. Not particularly fancy, but delicious and satisfying.

Dessert is another quiet delight. The tres leches cake is justifiably admired, but I preferred a sweet mango tart with a puckery scoop of lime ice cream.

If the meals I've had at Tierra over the past few weeks have not been the best meals of the year, they've certainly been some of the most enjoyable. Maybe it takes being a spoiled restaurant critic for that distinction to hold much meaning, but I think we can all agree that a little bit of heart goes a long way toward making up for an occasional oversalting or lack of finesse. And this restaurant is by no means lacking finesse – the dishes they do well, they do so very well that all grievances are forgiven. I will be thinking about that hearts of palm tart, those mussels and that fruit relish for a long time. And when the next person asks me for a recommendation – a great place that's not too loud, not too expensive and not too flashy – I'll be sending them to Tierra. If someone had done the same for me, I would have been eternally grateful.

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