Tacos, cocktails and ghosts at Ullio's latest Midtown MexicanMonday October 3, 2011 09:00 am EDT
Escorpion is an eatery haunted by the ghosts of restaurants past. Although the space has changed radically, Eno, the wine-centric fine dining restaurant that existed in this spot for years, still has a vaporous presence. The décor has moved from sedate art-bedecked walls and white linens to a riot of color, matador jackets and Mexican-themed adornments, but the sunny patio and windows facing Peachtree might conjure a wee bit of nostalgia for Atlanta's last serious wine bar. Escorpion also bears the imprint of three other restaurants: Cuerno, Beleza and Lupe Taqueria, owner Riccardo Ullio's last attempts to import his Inman Park success to Midtown.
Ullio's Sotto Sotto and Fritti are staples of the city's dining scene, but each of his Juniper Street forays had its own problems. Cuerno is often cited as proof that Atlanta was not ready for authentic Spanish cooking, closing after 18 months and re-opening as Lupe, a taqueria with none of the quality or excitement we've come to associate with Ullio's restaurants. Beleza also fell under the weight of its own ambition, at first perceived as too expensive and then quickly becoming a bastion for slightly sleazy nightlife rather than the organic, mostly vegetarian fare and fruit-driven cocktails that started out as its main draw. Eventually, a real estate dispute took Ullio out of Midtown altogether, until now.
Many people, including myself, worried that Escorpion would be Lupe Part II. The concept is almost identical. A few weeks into the restaurant's life, Ullio even re-hired the same chef from Lupe, Jose Rego. Rego had proven himself a talented Italian cook at Sotto Sotto and at the sadly short-lived Allegro, but his Mexican menu at Lupe was just passable and ultimately forgettable.
But Ullio and Rego seem to have learned a few lessons from their last venture together, and probably from all three of the previous Midtown projects. From Cuerno and Beleza, Ullio learned that in this part of town you have to give the people what they want: booze and tacos. From Lupe, I like to think they also learned that quality – a hint of something special – goes a long way toward distinguishing yourself from every other taco joint in town.
Escorpion is in no way a revelation – it is what it is. Cocktail-driven, fun, just-this-side-of-slutty Mexican food. The tacos fulfill their purpose: to pad your belly for more booze. A few are superior to others – the grilled shrimp surpass expectations, the buoyant shrimp providing sweet pops of oceanic flavor. Seta, the vegetarian option, is full of huitlacoche, the sweet and woodsy mushroom-like fungus, as well as corn, poblano peppers, and portobellos. It's a mishmash that's complex and intriguing, a welcome break from standard vegetarian fare (the same filling is used in a quesadilla, with just as much success). Steak tacos can be chewy, goat tacos can be a messy snooze. But all of them come with fresh-tasting salsas, tortillas that actually have flavor, and garnishes that complement and contrast with their fillings.
There's no doubt Rego has made an impact on the quality of the food since he's taken over. An early mole was watery and despicable – the new version is thicker and more flavorful, not mind-blowing but certainly gobble-worthy. The queso fundido was always a glorious goop – who doesn't like melty cheese with tangy meat bits? But it's become a little more refined, the chorizo sharing flavoring duties with poblano peppers, the cheese mellowing slightly. Rego has left a few of the ceviches alone, but the best are new creations. Salmon ceviche looks like a strange, fishy dessert parfait, all pink and dressed in coconut milk, and served in a glass goblet with mango and sesame seeds. But the tropical elements play off the velvety texture of the fish beautifully. The salmon, hamachi and tuna ceviches work better than their shrimp and octopus counterparts – somehow Rego is better at working with the voluptuous texture of fish flesh than springier material.
The restaurant's quinoa dishes made me wistful, remembering the first days of Beleza. I liked the slightly al dente texture of the ancient grain (of the future!) in the quinoa salad, served with avocado and pumpkin seeds. It also works under a roasted Scottish salmon, here blended with citrus and fresh herbs.
There are still places where the menu is baffling. Insanely undercooked, floppy, chewy pieces of duck swim in a bowl of super-salty black beans. The refried beans and rice that appears on the side of entrées are almost exact matches for what you'll find at every low-rent Tex-Mex spot anywhere in America. And the tamales were stiff and clunky, not that ethereal, soft amalgamation of meat and masa they should be.
I'd be amiss if I failed to give props to Escorpion for what is perhaps its greatest achievement: its cocktail list. Created by mixologists Adam Fox and Gilberto Marquez, the selection is built almost exclusively on tequila and mezcal — but don't let that fool you into thinking this is all lime juice and sunrises. Choices range from old man-tastic, such as the Spanish Harlem, a blend of añejo tequila, Italian sweet vermouth, PX sherry and a flurry of bitters, to the fruity, refreshing Lil' Florida Daisy, a citrusy mix of reposado tequila, grapefruit juice, lemon and whiskey barrel bitters. Some of the mezcal drinks veer into smoky weirdness, but it's a good kind of weird. The folks behind this list know how to balance pleasure with cerebral good times.
And that's kind of the point here. Escorpion achieves much of what it sets out to achieve. Is it trying to pave the way for serious Mexican food, to offer us a higher vision of this cuisine? No. Do I wish Ullio and Rego would aim higher? Sure. But is it their responsibility to do that? No, not really. They've created a menu and an atmosphere that's right for the neighborhood. Decent food, fun surroundings, and damn fine drinks.