Restaurant Review - Sala: Sabor de Mexico

"Is this your first time dining with us? No? Have you been here recently?"

When you pay a visit to Sala these days, chances are good that a server will greet you with a variation on the above questions. It's a preamble to the big news they're chomping at the bit to share: The restaurant has a new chef and the menu has gone through a major overhaul. And if you have eaten here before, you know it's about damn time.

The city's chowhounds heaved a collective sigh of disappointment last fall when word hit the street about the swanky new Mexican spot that replaced Camille's in the Highland. The space? Minimalist and tasteful (love the artwork). Drinks? Inventive and witty. But the food? Utterly forgettable. Deep, heavy sigh.

Sala's owners, Fifth Group restaurants, have been through this once before. They also operate La Tavola Trattoria up the street, which began its life several years ago as a looker with no culinary soul. Joey Masi was brought in to bring some finesse to the unfocused kitchen, and now the food at La Tavola is some of the most dependably delicious Italian in the city.

The owners are banking on Executive Chef Todd Mussman, a Fifth Group veteran, to perform a similar feat for Sala. From the taste of things, he's off to a solid start. Many dishes have been reconfigured or dropped altogether, new items have been added, and the menu overall has more balance and zip.

Even when the food was sub par, I was willing to swing by Sala for one of its ambrosial margaritas. A bartender is happy to guide you through the nuances of the different concoctions, which are served shaken with martini-style fanfare. I'm currently infatuated with the Longhorn — their Texas-style margarita — and the Reales, a bracing creation with no sugar in the mix. Closet daiquiri lovers can order the Frutas (blended with white peach puree on a recent night) without too much mockery from tablemates. If margaritas aren't your thing, no worries — there are two pages worth of tequilas, beers, cocktails and wine. These folks are serious about their libations.

Get some food in your system before too long (I've been eyewitness to the effects of one too many margaritas on an empty stomach at Sala. It ain't pretty, kids). When the restaurant first opened, the guacamole was either so salty it could have been used to scour dirty pots or so bland I had to add the salt from the rim of my drink glass to coax some flavor out of it. I'm elated to find the guac has found a limey, properly saline harmony in Mussman's hands.

Chile rellenos have also received some welcome modification. I love the complexity of the variation stuffed with chorizo sausage and potato, but it's hard to beat the classic model with oozy, woozy cheese seeping from the chile's innards. Scoop melty queso fundido, decoratively topped with caramelized onions, rajas (roasted poblano strips) and chorizo, into warm tortillas for a heady, unabashed cheese fest.

Sopes del Dia still need some work. The masa corn shells are often tough when they should be just firm enough to hold together, though their daily changing toppings — maybe sauteed mushrooms and rajas or chorizo and cheese — are tasty enough to scoop out and eat on their own. I have similar feelings about the ceviche cocktail. The tomatoey blend is frisky on the palate, but the seafood tastes like it was pre-cooked and the shrimp, in particular, lean toward the rubbery.

Many entrees have an accessible simplicity that accentuates the vivid flavors and well-cooked meats on the plate. Carne asada (grilled steak) and its piscine counterpart, precisely seared swordfish, come with beans, guac and sweet pepper salad that can be approached either as knife-and-fork food or as components for building tacos (ask for some warm corn tortillas on the side). A snapper filet over white rice is saved from banquet food doldrums by a traditional, full-bodied Veracruzana tomato sauce spiked with jalapenos, capers and olives.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for seared shrimp in a nondescript tomato-chipotle sauce piled next to an anemic mound of rice and a few straggling green beans. It's my least favorite entree on the menu. You'd do much better with the shrimp enchiladas bubbling in their little crock with roasted tomato salsa and a delicate cloak of cheese.

Desserts are competent, not stellar. I wish the tres leches cake was less dense, but I can't argue with the silky, meringue-like topping and the light touch of rum mingling amongst the milky sauce. Chocolate cake lovers will be pleased with the faint, mouth-warming heat of chili and spices in Sala's rendition.

Yes, I've got complaints here and there, but the restaurant seems at last to be finding an identity as a stylish neighborhood speakeasy with food on an equal playing field to the other "authentic" Mexican joints around town. It's safe to come around and — with deftly crafted drink in hand — give this hopeful another shot.

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