accessAtlanta

City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

Escorpion restaurant review, Midtown

$$

$$

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.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

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.

Designer Patti Kronhngold sets an inviting scene at Escorpion (photos by Becky Stein)

Designer Patti Kronhngold sets an inviting scene at Escorpion (photos by Becky Stein)

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…

Nicely puffed chile relleno

Nicely puffed chile relleno

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.

Luscious salmon ceviche

Luscious salmon ceviche

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
1stars5Food: 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

ratings_key_febUSE

23 comments Add your comment

Westside Resident

September 15th, 2011
9:40 am

Having been to Escorpion a few times, I was intrigued to see what your review would be when I saw the one star rating. After reading the review and refreshing my memory on the meaning of one star, I think you nailed it with this one. Escorpion is fun for a creative drink and a taco or ceviche on a Friday after work, but I wont soon be ordering anything else (the hamachi ceviche was pretty good and based on your description I really want to try the salmon ceviche now). I do wish they would bring back that queso dip from Lupe, it was far and away the best queso I’ve ever had. It seemed as though they had whipped the cheese into a froth before serving. If Escorpion had that, I can assure you my visits would be much more frequent.

Sage of Bluesland

September 15th, 2011
10:27 am

Do they serve appletinis? My taste buds are very picky ;)

RK

September 15th, 2011
10:44 am

So sick of the generic-sounding and -looking (look at that plate, which could be any El Azteca) Mexican food, which is a shame, because the more original concepts (the ceviches) sound intriguing.

BTW, as for that twitter link, Max Lager’s is underappreciated, due to its location and catering to visitors. The food has always been surprisingly very good.

Jenny

September 15th, 2011
12:36 pm

I have had the tilapia and octopus ceviches here on multiple occasions and have highly enjoyed both. I thought both had a very generous amount of fish in them and was surprised to see the review say otherwise. I think this is a great spot for meeting up with a group. Drinks are interesting and pricy; the food takes a back seat, but it’s also relatively cheap. Enjoy it for what it is.

BK

September 15th, 2011
8:40 pm

I have really enjoyed my meals at Escorpion! authentic and nicely executed. Great addition to the restaurant scene here in ATL!

Steve

September 16th, 2011
1:27 pm

I’m in the same boat as Jenny. I’ve had the ceviches many times now and found them to be excellent with plenty of fish. The drinks here are pricey but very well made and definitely original compared to anywhere else in Atlanta. I’ve been eating here since the place opened and have found that the food gets better with each visit.

Jack Jackson

September 16th, 2011
1:45 pm

Yet “Hit Or Miss” restaurant Eugene gets 4 stars……………..

Riccardo Ullio

September 16th, 2011
2:04 pm

Last month Escorpion had the best sales in my company, higher sales than Fritti and Sotto Sotto, where we had a record August. Yet Escorpion gets the worse review I have had in my 17 years as a restaurateur in Atlanta, go figure….

Richie

September 16th, 2011
7:49 pm

I have had nothing but great experiences here on my 4 visits for lunch. I have seen the quality of the food improve with Chef Joe’s arrival and look forward to more of his influence in the kitchen. The mole chicken taco is hearty and deeply flavored- presented a perfectly toasted tortilla. My pork tamales were light and moist, freshly steamed and had a were accented by a spicy green chile. I have had my fair share of poorly executed food in this city, but it certainly was not here.

Debbie

September 16th, 2011
7:56 pm

Love the ceviche and tamales at Escorpion!

Are you sure?

September 16th, 2011
8:29 pm

Did the server also tell you that you have bad breath and beard

Are you sure?

September 16th, 2011
9:10 pm

Did you ask the health score so you could put that on your blog?

hewhocannotbenamed

September 17th, 2011
2:43 pm

I find it funny that Escorpion’s chef was recently named a “Chef to Watch” by another local publication and (up until recently) the restaurant was named as one of the top places to eat by Eater Atlanta.

. . . and the great Atlanta “Scene vs. Quality” battle rages on. . .

revstj

September 18th, 2011
6:50 am

We have eaten there several times. The margaritas are quite good. Not too sweet as many around town are. The carnitas, lengua, and goat tacos are quite good. I have not had a chile relleno for a month or more but the ones I have had were no where near as good as the ones at Lupe.

On weekend nights when the place is busy it is very loud inside but perfect outside.

We are glad they are doing well since we live in the hood and love Mexican food. Now if only the chile rellenos would go back to the Lupe style.

KEO

September 18th, 2011
5:43 pm

I live upstairs and have eaten at Escorpion a dozen times in the past few months and it’s always delicious! As far as drinks and tacos go at a tequila bar I think it exceeds expectations…obviously not Kessler’s. And no mention of the new wedge salad? It’s amazing with grilled steak or huge shrimp, my favorite!

John Buckhalt

September 18th, 2011
11:45 pm

Even though this is a witty and informative it seems a little malicious. The reading of it does not validate the belittling one star rated granted. As an avid foodie and food and beverage professional, I am very aware of the love to hate you relationship between Kessler and Ullio. I have been to Escorpion dozens of times and I feel that it is a great addition to my neighborhood. I have tried every drink on the menu and many of the food items. As any customer there are things that I love and things that I do not. I will be honest the drinks, tacos, and ceviches are definitely the homeruns. I also believe that remainder of the food menu is well balanced and has something for everyone. Yes the drinks are $10 dollars a pop but they are well crafted and very innovative. You also have to remember that you are in Midtown in a chic, mixology bar and I have had a worse drink for more than 10 bucks. Also as a frequent occupant of this fabulous restaurant, I know from personal experience if you allow them to guide you through this vast and slightly confusing menu there will be a winner. My personal favorites are the Jaliscan Parisian and the 30 – 30. The Jaliscan Parisian is a crisp, bubbly piece of perfection, so refreshing it would quench anybody’s thirst. The 30 – 30 is a skillfully crafted stirred drink that has a smoky, velvety breath that will fill your chest and heart with joy. The cinnamon and vanilla after tones will bring you to your own little piece of paradise. As mentioned Escorpion also has the best agave distillate selection in Atlanta. Escorpion was recently ranked #6 in the nation for mescal bars. The food I believe to be brilliant for what it is; this is a Mexican spot. First and for most the house salsa is amazing all the roast and smoky char pureed brilliantly to please you from the start. The guacamole is preciously crafted to order. Creamy avocado, crisp red onion, juicy tomatoes, and a hint of lime that explode when your taste buds interact with it on a hot, crisp tortilla chip. I personal prefer the tuna ceviche. It is very sensory appealing because you don’t what is the tuna or the watermelon. Then compacted with fresh Serrano peppers, lime juice, and sea salt send your taste buds into sensory overload. Every taco I have ever had has been bursting with flavor and piping hot. I like the creativity and unique combinations. The tres leches is AMAZING! Not to throw eclipse di luna under the bus, a prized Atlanta jewel, but Escorpion’s tres leches is light years ahead. In conclusion I feel that Escorpion is a quality driven and great dining experience. I feel for what you receive the time allotted is just. Rome was not built in a day. For me this one star is a measure of bad blood between blogger and restaurateur. At the end of the day you have to for your own opinion. 3 STARS!

RK

September 19th, 2011
10:44 am

Eater also says “John Kessler Awards Escorpion One Star” — another reason why this system is broken. That headline is misleading but truthful.

John Kessler

September 19th, 2011
11:46 am

John Buckhalt -Thanks for weighing in. Sounds like we both love the bar program, and it also sounds like we have very different pieces of tres leches cake. Just to correct something: I think that Riccardo Ullio is a great restaurateur and, the times I’ve talked to him, he’s come across as a very nice and thoughtful guy. But not that that matters: my three meals at Escorpion convinced me this is a restaurant that still needs to work out some inconsistencies.

Jake

September 19th, 2011
12:00 pm

I would rather spend $80 on a steak dinner then Escorpion’s few margaritas and mediocre tacos. We went with a group of 9 friends, and none of us will be returning. The carnitas taco tasted like liquid smoke, and the chicken enchilada tasted like Taco Cabana. Sad, sad, sad.

Dan Backhaus

September 19th, 2011
12:31 pm

I have stopped into Escorpion several times for drinks and small plates at the bar and have never been disappointed. The ceviche – both salmon and octopus – have always been excellent and with plenty of fish. In fact, the octopus ceviche is my favorite and has always been delicious. I have had some less-than-perfect experiences with some of the other dishes but they have always been pretty good, albeit with some small issues, that I would attribute to growing pains.and the place being very busy.
It’s odd that I find myself frequently agreeing with some of the points raised by John in his write-ups (though perhaps not weighted them as heavily), but then am often completely baffled by the overall scores given. This instance is no different, for I would have given Escorpion a solid 3 stars and think the place is a welcome and notable addition to our city.

Steven A.

September 19th, 2011
7:00 pm

I’m not sure what kind of quality vs. popularity argument Mr. Ullio is trying to make with his comment, but I hear McDonald’s does a brisk business. I don’t think that qualifies them for a 5-star review.

I say this as a passionate fan of Sotto Sotto. If you are content that you are successfully serving your patrons what they want, great. Keep on truckin’. But responding to respectful, constructive criticism with a handful of receipts is kind of missing the point.

Jan

September 20th, 2011
8:30 am

My wife and I live a couple of blocks away and were thrilled to see the place open and doing so well. We liked the former Lupe but this is a much better space and menu. The food is good, great chips and salsa, really friendly atmosphere and staff. If you have not been, I wouldn’t let this review keep you away. Decide for yourself.

Midtown Neighbor

September 21st, 2011
1:12 pm

Really people?…this is getting a little scary id say. this whole notion that good operators and restaurateurs” keep on ticking” sounds to me like what the fat cat Hollywood producer had printed on his long draping laurels as he went into production on Rambo 3. Let’s face it, some of you, ..perhaps even John are a bit tentative when it comes to telling ole Ullio how they really feel ….how they REALLY feel!…I mean cumon folks,..let’s be honest OK??? Ricardo is a good cook and he has been -with limited success able to instill some of his talents into a few of his brigade over in little Italy but this revised attempt at Mexican is just simply not a good concept, not a good bar, and despite the sentiments above, there are not in my mind (or any of my neighbors who all live within 2 blocks) particularly well crafted cocktails either.
I suppose for a local watering hole with attitude this place could be alright for a night cap or an occasional shot but then there is the food which is bordering atrocious. I would personally like to feel confident ordering a taco with that margarita or shot of mezcal !! The foolish disjointed attempt at high design, the wreckless service performed by scantily dressed eastern bloc, servers all together with the pomposity and arrogance that radiates from the cocktail menu makes me want to spit just to clear my mouth. In the face of most Atlantans who are truly just beginning to grasp the beauty and purity of the family of agave distillates, Escorpion has done to the category what the sommeliers of the 70’s and 80’s did to wine. Lets create a dense, dissertation of jargon and impractical information to substantiate a façade of sincerity and authenticity and let’s do it right in the middle of midtown Atlanta! Lets pretend to make “artisan” ice with our dirty bare hands, then wipe our jeans, touch our hair and then squeeze some more ice before dropping it into my boyfriends glass. My god ! Clearly, I could go on and on but I will resist the temptation. Long story abbreviated,..this ullio guy should stick to what he does well and steer clear of the other Latin cuisines. Sure dimly lit spaces with a decent buzz on feel sort of sexy but then again, its all about the company right?,, try taking your lover into a closet with a bottle of good blanco a bag of corn nuts and a flashlight and you’ll more than likely have a better experience for a fraction of the price.