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Alma Cocina restaurant review, downtown Atlanta

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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.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

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?

Pork pibil tamale (photos by Becky Stein)

Pork pibil tamale (photos by Becky Stein)

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.

A flat iron steak at the center of a flavor-packed plate

A flat iron steak at the center of a flavor-packed plate

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.

Corvina sea bass ceviche with avocado mousse

Corvina sea bass ceviche with avocado mousse

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.

Coconut tres leches cake

Coconut tres leches cake

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
3stars5
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
ratings_key_febUSE

31 comments Add your comment

RK

February 23rd, 2012
9:32 am

It’s nice to have someone reach into real, different Mexican food — huaraches, huitlacoche — than repeat the same old stuff that Americans pass for Mexican food.

Darin

February 23rd, 2012
10:43 am

Yay! I’m glad you liked it. John. I’m hoping Alma Cocina will last longer than some of the other good restaurants we’ve (too briefly) had in my downtown neighborhood. I’ve been really happy with it.

One thing I’d like to point out is the very nice bar experience here. Sitting up at the bar with cocktails and apps is actually the only way I’ve eaten here so far. but I’ve really enjoyed it. The bar service is great and I live the small plates I’ve had, like the fried avocado taquito you mention. More so than that, I enjoyed the helfty Cachaca Braised Short Rib appetizer and (my favorite) the Pork Cheek Arepa. The one thing I didn’t care for was the side of Elote, but I can forgive that.

Not all the cocktails I’ve had were hits. I’d suggest sticking to the tequila based ones.

jonnymack

February 23rd, 2012
12:57 pm

I’m glad you mentioned Fifth Group’s service. I’m a Fifth Group fan (lord do I miss Food Studio) and have found all of their restaurants to have great, knowledgeable servers. I’m looking forward to checking this place out.

Ellen

February 23rd, 2012
1:41 pm

Nice write up here with a well deserved nod to fifth group …reminds me I need to go back.

Meg

February 23rd, 2012
4:12 pm

The best server I ever had worked at Ecco. Her name was Kristen. Fifth Group knows what they’re doing.

Robert

February 23rd, 2012
4:58 pm

Sounds worth making the drive the try. It looks like Lucero Martinez-Obregon and her brother were ahead of the times when they tried something similar with Oh Maria. I really liked that place. The tamale sounds killer at Alma. Nice review – thanks.

Baltisraul

February 23rd, 2012
5:32 pm

That food sounds and looks great!!!!!!!!!

Lorenzo

February 23rd, 2012
6:10 pm

Comparisons with Rosa Mexicano?

James

February 24th, 2012
9:47 am

Been here once and loved it – can’t wait to return. Must say that the warm and inviting interior (and food) is quite unexpected against the sterile and intimidating office building it resides in…

Nice review.

southern hope

February 24th, 2012
10:02 am

So happy to see this review! I work downtown and i LOVE this restaurant….and with things like 2-story Hooters being built down the street, this is our bulwark of fine cuisine. :)

And this “I haven’t tried a better tamale in Atlanta” is sending me there today for lunch.

janet

February 24th, 2012
10:10 am

I had the tamale you have pictured last week. It was DELICIOUS. And by far the best maragarita in years. No need to drive downtown. Alma Cocina is next door to the Ritz Carlton on Peachtree which is a 3 min walk from the Peachtree Center Marta Station. So pretend you live in a grown up big city and take Marta. Then you can have another Margarita without worrying about the drive home.
I live 5 mins from Roswell’s great Canton St cavalcade of restaurants but will be returning on Marta very soon to eat at Alma Cocina.

Darin

February 24th, 2012
10:24 am

RE: James’ “Must say that the warm and inviting interior (and food) is quite unexpected against the sterile and intimidating office building it resides in… ”

I had a similar reaction. I love the place, but I gotta say that I don’t particularly care for the seating section (about half the restaurant) that’s in the lobby of the 191 Peachtree tower. It felt a little like being in one of those mall restaurants where the “patio” seating is in the mall walkway.

But the other half is just beautiful and has a great, relaxed vibe to it. Very nice interior. And really, even if you’re sitting in the lobby side, you’re still getting great food so it only matters so much.

John Kessler

February 24th, 2012
11:42 am

I personally prefer Alma Cocina to Rosa Mexicano, though I do have a soft spot for Rosa’s guac and fresh tortillas.

david c

February 24th, 2012
12:27 pm

I don’t want to quibble too much, but you stated the pork pibil tamal comes steamed in a banana leaf, yet the picture is clearly a corn husk.

[...] on the heels of recent favorable reviews of its newest restaurant Alma Cocina, Fifth Group Restaurants has announced yet another new [...]

Srsly tho

February 24th, 2012
1:03 pm

Just tell the truth. This is either one or the other: (a) Southwestern Cuisine, OR (b) overpriced Mexican food.
There is no grey area or hybrid.
Usually if you charge for salsa, it’s just overpriced Mexican.
And I’m not being culturally obtuse or critical of Mexican food or Mexican restaurants. I am a fan of legit Mexican food, like Nuevo Laredo.
But when you have restaurants like No Mas, for example, thatserve run of the mill, frozen Mexican-style food and charge more for it because the owners happen to not be of Latino-American descent, it is just insulting to everyone involved.
So, I ask again, and I’m dead serious, is Alma Cocina Southwestern Cuisine or overpriced Mexican food?
For a definition of Southwestern Cuisine, see Nava – back when it was good. See also Kevin Rathbun.

Srsly tho

February 24th, 2012
1:04 pm

For an example of overpriced Mexican food, see Zocalo.

Srsly tho

February 24th, 2012
1:06 pm

You do know that ‘upscale Mexican restaurant’ is an oxymoron, right?

Dear david c

February 24th, 2012
1:09 pm

Re the cochinita pibil tamale.
It’s a tamale; the pork is steamed in banana leaves and it is served on a corn husk for decoration.
Please stop making asinine observations.

Srsly tho

February 24th, 2012
1:12 pm

The definition of Tapas: $8.00 plate of food with 1.5 ounces of food on it typically served to tourists and various stupid people in dimly lit restaurants where large tables of homely women request separate checks.

Srsly tho

February 24th, 2012
1:13 pm

ha ha. You know if you compare it to rosa mexicano it is good. How does it compare to say idk taco bell?

John Kessler

February 24th, 2012
1:37 pm

That sure is a corn husk…wonder if anyone from anyone from the restaurant can answer the tamale mystery…

Robby Kukler

February 24th, 2012
3:56 pm

The pork itself is first braised in banana leaf, then made into the tamale with the bacon studded masa and other ingredients and steamed in the corn husk. I hope that helps to clarify.
Thanks

Srsly tho

February 24th, 2012
4:21 pm

That’s what i said.

seriously though

February 24th, 2012
5:23 pm

Srsly tho, you’re intolerably lame.

Stop giving me a bad name. Thx.

Srsly tho

February 25th, 2012
12:52 pm

Ok, I love Ecco (mainly because of the great service at the bar) and I really like SCK (Sunday brunch), so I am giving this place a try tonight. I’ll report back on Monday morning, and I promise to be fair.

Melissa

February 28th, 2012
2:50 pm

I’ve been to Alma Cocina a few times and it’s been hit or miss! I agree with Srsly tho. It is overpriced Mexican mixed food. I won’t however be going back since I’ve found out that it’s a property of Fifth Group. Fifth Group/SCK midtown never resolved an issue with us when a couple of roaches were seen on the patio while we were dining and a waiter stepped on one in the middle of the ailse and kept walking.

Melissa

February 28th, 2012
2:53 pm

I know that should be aisle.

Native Atlanta

February 28th, 2012
3:48 pm

Roaches on a patio — oh my! Goodness Melissa….grow up…..

Melissa

February 28th, 2012
4:44 pm

Unlike you Native Atlanta I’m sure I’m a lot cleanlier than you! I would say most people with decency would say that BIG WATERBUGS/ROACHES on the patio is not a good thing! Don’t know if you are from the restaurant group or not but YOU NEED TO GROW UP FROM YOUR TEENAGE YEARS AS IF YOU WERE SNICKERING IF YOU SAW THEM WHILE YOU WERE DINING! GET A BRAIN! These weren’t gnats or flies!

Native Atlanta

February 28th, 2012
5:20 pm

@Melissa….and u continue your downward spiral and, no, I’m not from the Fifth Group. Plus, I’m well beyond my teenage years and actually appreciate cleanliness. I’m also mature enough to understand that if you are sitting outside on a patio, nature will find you. Speaking of teenage years….”GET A BRAIN”, seriously? .