Review: Alma Cocina

Modern Mexican cuisine in the heart of downtown

Is there really any way to improve on guacamole? Of course there are bad versions of guacamole, made with subpar ingredients or too many spices. But when made fresh and simple, is there any way to add totally new components and create something better than the tried-and-true combination of avocado, lime, cilantro, onion, and garlic?

I had my doubts. And the version served at Alma Cocina, the new downtown restaurant from Fifth Group Restaurants, seemed like exactly the type of thing that's wrong with so much "upscale" Mexican cooking: Take a perfectly good recipe and add a bunch of shizzle. Dazzle the gringos with bells and whistles. Who needs butternut squash, queso fresco, and chipotle added to their guac?

Apparently, this gringo does. That shizzle is delicious. The sweetness of the roasted cubes of butternut squash, the salt of the queso, the smokiness of the chipotle, all work with the lush avocado to create something I could not stop gobbling.

Alma Cocina is located at 191 Peachtree, the building with the impressive atrium that adjoins the Ritz-Carlton, in the space that was most recently Il Mulino. That New York import proved to be too expensive and formal for the locals, tourists, and conventioneers alike, closing in late 2010 after two years. Alma Cocina opened in early December of last year.

The restaurant is Fifth Group's second Mexican concept, the other being the Original El Taco in Virginia-Highland. But where El Taco aims to please neighborhood folks looking for mid-priced Tex-Mex and margaritas by the pitcher, Alma Cocina is more geared toward the expense accounters. In fact, apart from the ownership and Mexican theme, the two restaurants barely have anything in common.

Of course, Alma serves margaritas, and even the frozen mint things that El Taco has made "legendary," according to the menu. But I recommend the Amatitan, made with reposado tequila and channeling the woodier, funkier qualities of the spirit rather than trying to cover it up with loads of saccharine. Cocktails beyond margaritas have a harder time — the Winston Salem, made with tobacco infused tequila, vanilla brandy, and pineapple has an odd balance that works through two sips but not a whole glass, and the Nesting Instinct, made with gin, mescal, and tequila, tastes just like it sounds — a glass full of harsh booze.

As for the food, while Alma does suffer from some of the pitfalls of "modern Mexican," it also gets a lot right, taking traditional dishes and refining them just enough to allow you to taste them afresh. Chef Chad Clevenger came to Alma via Denver, where (Alma's website claims) he won accolades as the purveyor of the city's best tamales. I can see why — the pork tamale, served at dinner as an appetizer and at lunch as an entrée, achieves that magical meaty/corn moosh, brightened by a green chile sauce that pools across the plate. The "bacon-corn" masa had an almost smoky flavor, like cedar wood, that added restrained intrigue to the dish. It's subtle tweaks like this across Alma's menu that make it succeed — pomegranate seeds paired with braised lamb, or crispy Cotija cheese that provides a tangy base for a fried avocado taquito. At lunch, a perfectly cooked piece of corvina sea bass with an arugula, avocado, and citrus salad tasted fresh and light — one of those rare healthy restaurant dishes that makes no compromise on ramped-up flavors.

There's a nice selection of ceviches, each of which includes creative flavors, super-fresh seafood, and not enough salt. The hamachi swims in a green sea of cucumber-serrano water and coconut granita, while scallops sit in a martini glass with blood orange and basil. Both managed to be highly acidic and oddly bland, all pucker and no depth.

I wished for more salt a lot at Alma, which is an odd problem to have at a Mexican restaurant, even if it indicates that everything is made from scratch. Chicken mole Oaxaca huaraches came bathed in a properly deep and spicy mole, topped with pickled onions for bite. But the lack of salt left the dish oddly dull. The same was true for the pile of braised goat in tomatillo-arbol sauce.

But I'd rather have a lack of salt and fresh, thoughtful ingredients than the regular cynical cheesy glop most Mexican-for-tourists joints serve up. Is Alma Cocina built for tourists? Yes, mainly it is. It's the fault of the location — parking is a pain (as in, find the garage, pull up to the closed roll-up door, press the intercom, wait for the garage door to open, find a space, park, find the elevator, find your way through a kind of labyrinthine building), service is well-informed and too rushed and a touch smarmy, and you might show up just to be turned away because a convention has rented out the entire place.

But I'm impressed with Clevenger's fresh sensibilities with this cuisine. Paired with Fifth Group's consistency and professionalism, Alma Cocina could go a long way toward convincing the tourists and conventioneers that Atlanta just might be a food town after all.

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