You don’t hear much anymore about the Broadway show “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” but last I checked, $157 tickets were widely available.
Yet this past fall, as actors flew through (and occasionally fell from) the air, “Spider-Man” was in the news constantly. The producers asked for an excessively long preview period before deeming the musical ready for review.
Despite this injunction, critics from major publications began weighing in one by one on the (manifest) faults and (seemingly few) merits of the show. The ticket-buying public, they argued, needed some guidance.
I followed this discourse with interest as it pertained to a constant concern in reviewing restaurants. The first weeks of a restaurant’s life are its de facto preview period, and even the great ones will screw up royally as they get their sea legs and churn through staff and menu items that aren’t working out. Fair critics should wait a good month before fork to mouth becomes pen to paper.
But the problem is that some restaurants need more time to get off the ground, a situation I suspect is true for Escorpion. This grand-looking new cantina in the heart of Midtown is for now a fun, if uneven, spot for creative cocktails and tacos. It tries to be more, but after nearly four months it hasn’t quite figured out how to get there yet.
And so I suggest you visit this vast 8,500-square-foot spot that gobbled up the former Peachtree Street locations of Eno and Barrelman with your expectations in check and a frugal hand on your wallet. In fact you may want to get no further than the bar — a great swoop of a thing that greets you at the entrance set with juicers and every bottle colorful tequila bottle you’ve ever noticed.
Not only that, the bar stocks a good selection of craft mezcals — the agave distillate from Oaxaca that often has a pronounced smoky flavor. You can even sip on the much rarer Mexican spirit called sotol. (For my fellow geeks, sotol comes not from agave but the spikier desert plant called Dasylirion wheeleri, also a member of the family Asparagaceae. It tastes not unlike tequila.)
But you may want more than a wedge of lime and lick of salt to wash down your tequila, as the cocktail list is one of the wittiest in town. A staffer talks me into ordering something called the L’il Florida Daisy ($10), an appealing bitter-tart concoction of reposado tequila with grapefruit and lemon juices, maraschino liqueur and whiskey barrel bitters. As to the curious name (which I won’t be bragging on to the dudes in my sweat lodge), it’s a reverse translation of the Spanish word for daisy, “margarita.”
Better yet is the Paloma de Mezcal ($10), a thrillingly weird mix of smoky pineapple-infused mezcal with citrus and soda under a salt-crusted rim. Those who knock back this drink will hate it; those who sip tentatively will slowly fall in love.
But, oh yeah, you’re hungry…
You could do a lot worse than sinking into one of the black, alligator-skin-patterned booths with a plate of fun tacos served in soft corn tortillas. Fried jumbo shrimp ($5) burst with appealing saline sweetness, while carnitas ($3.50) pits lean citrus-braised pork against creamy avocado sauce. Chicken tinga ($3.50) with a slick of melted cheese hits the gooey taco spot well enough, while the barbacoa de chivo ($4) brings a respectable mound of shredding-apart braised goat with bright salsa verde.
Have a taco or two, and you might think Escorpion hits that elusive sweet spot between homey and chic where so many trendy Mexican restaurants fail. But then you may be tempted to give the “nice dinner out” side of the menu a spin and soon find yourself picking through a weird plate of chewy duck breast chunks over hard, flavorless, lukewarm black beans ($16). You’ll wonder, what is the story here? Let me tell you.
Owner Riccardo Ullio, who has parlayed his Italian heritage into the successful Inman Park restaurants Sotto Sotto and Fritti, opened Escorpion in May. Ullio’s previous attempt at a bumping Midtown taqueria, Lupe, closed last May after a financing problem, so this was supposed to be his return to form.
But early reports on the food at Escorpion weren’t good, and Ullio decided the restaurant needed a more proactive chef. Enter Jose Rego, who once ran the kitchen at Lupe, and Sotto Sotto before that. Rego and Ullio began immediately goosing the selection of ceviches and entrees.
It sure seems a mixed bag so far. The salmon ceviche ($8) is a luscious mound of cubed fish and mango dressed suavely with coconut milk, ginger, sesame seeds and a few all-important slivers of serrano pepper. The octopus version ($8) brings little more than a pile of over-salted, over-marinated pico de gallo with precious few bits of the advertised seafood. Hamachi ($9) with pineapple, jicama, chipotle and grated dried corn is interesting, with a bitter edge I can’t place.
Yet as often as this menu invokes fresh, bright flavors, it doesn’t always carry them off. I want to love a quinoa salad ($7) with avocado, mint and pumpkin seeds, but the grain is damp and gritty on the tongue. Quinoa should have a beguiling springiness.
Watermelon salad ($7) tastes stripped of every good thing about watermelon. Mini-cubes that are not sweet, cold or crisp come with a similar-sized dice of jicama and queso fresco in a dull dressing that shows no trace of the promised lime juice. The kitchen spends a lot of time cutting food into little cubes.
I know that Rego is a skilled chef — I still recall his fine pastas during his stint as chef at the now-shuttered Allegro — and I think I can detect his hand here and there. A chile relleno filled with beef ($14) is a hot, puffy marvel sheathed in lightest egg-white batter.
Yet I wonder if Rego’s kitchen slogs through too much of the pro forma food that diners expect from Mexican restaurants. A chicken breast in red mole ($16) with rice, refrieds and tortillas is a pleasant enough snooze, but I wouldn’t return to a tamale filled with jiggly, fatty pork ($4) nor one with dry strings of chicken ($4). A floppy paper-wrapped carnitas burrito ($8) with gooey cheese and lettuce belongs in a chain restaurant, not here.
And I’m mystified by a cup of perfectly unseasoned cole slaw ($2.50) that gets no flavor from its few waxy rings of raw poblano pepper and a tough corner piece of tres leches cake ($7) that little milk syrup had penetrated. A squirt of aerosol whipped cream was the icing on this sad cake.
I’m also perplexed by how long the kitchen can take preparing the food. After we waited nearly 30 minutes for lunchtime entrees, our server explained that the presence of a health inspector in the kitchen was slowing things down. That may be the case, but the fact that one of our entrees was lukewarm and the other hot from the oven makes me think the cooks have timing issues with this complex menu.
So there’s my review of Escorpion, a restaurant that’s taking its good time growing up. Unlike the creators of “Spider-Man,” who have had their shot at a rewrite, good restaurateurs keep tinkering. They listen to some criticisms, disregard others and do what they think is right to make their businesses as good as they can be.
This much I know: Ullio and Rego are good restaurateurs.ESCORPION 800 Peachtree St., Midtown, 678-666-5198 Food: Creative Mexican Service: Chatty and helpful, but the kitchen can be quite slow. Best dishes: Cocktails, tacos, beef chile relleno. Vegetarian selections: Quite a few in every section of the menu. Credit cards: All major Hours: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m., Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m., Friday-Saturday; 12:30 p.m.-12 a.m., Sunday Children: Should be fine early in the evening, but there’s a lot of tequila being poured. Parking: Self-parking in lot behind restaurant during the day, valet at night. Reservations: For parties of 10 or more. Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes