I’ve been to a number of private homes, mostly in the West, where the occupants favor a look I’d call “expensive Mexican handicraft.” The walls are various shades of splotchy burnt orange and mustard, the chairs made of intricately carved wood with luxurious leather slipcovers, the silver platters enormous creations of hand-hammered metal.
I bring this style up not to draw attention to the dining room at Alma Cocina but rather the food, which feels to me like an edible cognate of the same soulful yet highly decorative design sensibility. The menu here may at first glance offer the homey, handcrafted fare of Mexico we all love — the chips and salsa, the tacos and tamales, the beans and rice. But it does so with a carefully wrought tastefulness that always let you know you’re in a nice restaurant.
This observation may sound like a dig, but it isn’t. I would be forever happy with a sampler of four salsas ($8) — roasted tomato, bright tomatillo-avocado, chile-musky salsa negra and sweet mango-habanero — with even more kinds of chips to dip into them. Corn, yes, but also malanga, plantain, yucca and fried pork skins. Factor in some guacamole topped with the yin and yang of diced butternut squash and smoky chipotle ($7) and a gorgeous Amatitán margarita ($12) made with custom-barreled Herradura reposado tequila, and my mood shifts from happy to supremely content. Does this feel “really Mexican?” Does it matter?
Alma Cocina — the latest from Atlanta’s Fifth Group of restaurants (Ecco, La Tavola, South City Kitchen) — has taken over the restaurant space in the lobby of One Ninety One Peachtree Tower first developed by the Il Mulino restaurant chain. Whereas the former tenant used the monumental marble architecture to add grandeur to its indulgent and expensive Italian dinner house concept, Alma instead turns the space into an inviting respite downtown. A rough-sawn wooden ceiling absorbs the sound, and while there is no mistaking the expensive Mexican handicraft look (check out the chandelier shaped like an agave plant), humble materials such as decorative concrete blocks and reclaimed oak counters keep it comfortable for both locals and conventioneers alike.
Chef Chad Clevenger, a veteran of some well-regarded restaurants in the Rocky Mountain West, prepares a whole lot of pretty, reasonably priced dishes. Our table goes into high “try this, try that” mode when the plates start arriving. Corvina sea bass ceviche ($9), bright with lime and chile, is scoopably delicious, particularly when your spoon discovers the layer of creamy avocado mousse in the bottom of the dish. A flaky huitlacoche empanada ($7) pits gooey Oaxacan cheese against the truffle-like funk of the fungus otherwise known as “corn smut.” Fried avocado taquitos ($7) are better than any I’ve tried, thanks to the savory coating of dry cotija cheese encasing each squishy morsel. A pork pibil tamale ($8), steamed in a banana leaf rather than a corn husk, has a fantastic smoky undertone, thanks to a bit of bacon in the masa dough. I haven’t tried a better tamale in Atlanta.
I only wish Clevenger would break out the fresh masa more often. How great it would be to have some warm, handmade corn tortillas with the guacamole and then again with the entrees.
The kitchen does prepare a soft corn masa base for the open-faced heaps called “huaraches.” The name, which means “sandals,” refers to its oblong shape. Usually huaraches have a thicker, crisply fried corn masa base, which I prefer. We try one with shredded braised goat ($6) and strips of roasted chile, and another with mushrooms, butternut squash and charred onion ($7). Neither shouted with flavor (the vegetarian one supposedly contained the pungent herb epazote), but both had some appeal in a pass-and-share way.
There are some dishes that look great and sound great but don’t leave much of an impression. A lunch entree of duck confit chilaquiles ($11) with tomatillo salsa, white bean puree, crema, cheese and fried eggs heaped over corn tortilla crisps sounds like the dish I live for, but doesn’t have that kind of soppy, kind of crisp texture of honest chilaquiles. It’s too refined to register.
If you’re more of a real entree than a pass-and-share kind of eater, then I’ve got good news: Both “platos mayores” (main courses) we try are terrific. A lunch entree of corvina sea bass ($15) with yellow mole, citrus-avocado salad and grilled moons of chayote squash deftly pits the fresh, mild fish against layers of heat, sweetness and acid. At dinner, a flat iron steak ($24) finds itself at the center of a plate with cool avocado-arugula salad, rich chile-goat cheese potato gratin and a smoky adobo sauce that brought it all together into a whole lot of soppy yum.
It may be hard to stop eating this, but do if you want to deserve your coconut très leches cake with tart passion fruit sauce ($7). The churros ($5) with three dipping sauces (traditional chocolate, salted goat’s milk caramel and lemon curd) seems like more of a clever decorative idea than an actual good dessert. Those cinnamon sticks slicked with thick lemon jam make for a sugar shock.
Though I like to review all restaurants on their own merits rather than their ownership, I must note and praise the Fifth Group service style. As at the other restaurants, these folks exhibit a special kind of agency. They show you their personalities and take ownership of your experience, helping you decide what and how to order. This helps you form more of a personal bond with the restaurant — even if it’s in a downtown office tower and filled with conventioneers.ALMA COCINA 191 Peachtree St., downtown Atlanta, 404-968-9662 Food: High-style Mexican fare Service: Excellent Best dishes: Corvina sea bass ceviche, pork pibil tamale, flat iron steak, fried avocado taquitos, coconut très leches cake. Vegetarian selections: Quite a few, and in each menu category Credit cards: All major cards Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner, 5 p.m.-close nightly Children: Fine Parking: Validated when using the One Ninety One Peachtree Tower lot. Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: There’s a lobby “patio” in the grand atrium. Takeout: Yes