December 20, 2011
First Bite: Latitude and Alma Cocina
Farewell to farm-to-table and “hola” to two global eateries with a new latitude
By Nancy Staab
- Latitude images by Heidi Geldhauser courtesy of The Reynolds Group Inc.
At Chef Micah Willix’s new restaurant Latitude and Fifth Group’s new eatery Alma Cocina, global small plates rule for festive nights out. There’s also hearty main plates and worthy desserts to dive into at both establishments. Latitude boasts a serious wine menu, while Alma Cocina focuses on curated tequilas and flavor-infused ice cubes.
It’s almost 2012, and in our minds the farm-to-table phenom has about run its course. There we said it. Please don’t send LuxeCrush angry letters about supporting local farmers (we love our local farmers: see our big feature on the documentary Grow! http://www.luxecrush.com/culture/article/crop-circle) or eating organic or the values of restaurants that flaunt the FTT flag. We adore FTT eateries like Miller Union, Cakes & Ale and Empire State South, not to mention the scads of restaurants working in this vein well before FTT became a catch phrase: Aria, Restaurant Eugene, Watershed, JCT. Kitchen, etc. etc. But… we’re are ready for some new culinary trails in the new year and luckily Latitude and Alma Cocina have opened just in time to usher in a new global-local trend.
Here are our initial field notes about two original eateries with two very able chefs: Latitude’s Micah Willix (formerly of Ecco) and Alma Cocina’s Chad Clevenger (formerly of Coyote Café in Santa Fe as well as work in France and Denver). Both chefs are carving new global paths with inventive riffs rather than slavish imitations of far-flung cuisines, while still nodding to local bounty.
It must be a great release for a chef of talent to finally answer to his own palette and open his first solo venture ( with partners Kenny Perlman and Emily Streib Marcil). Chef Micah Willix proved his mettle for fives years at the immensely popular, rustic-chic Mediterranean eatery Ecco. Don’t even get us started about the now-legendary fried goat cheese balls with honey and cracked pepper or the seasonal white asparagus with vinaigrette small plate.
His new restaurant, Latitude, housed in the former Grape space at Phipps Plaza, re-treads some of this same Italian-Spanish-Mediterranean ground with offerings like the pan-fried eggplant and grilled pork chop with artichoke confit, tomato and oregano. But there’s also hearty New American dishes: spicy pork sausage with cherries and wilted escarole or seared duck breast with oyster mushroom, bacon and shallots and global seafood dishes with a sophisticated gloss: tuna ceviche (gorgeous) and scallop crudo with saffron, fennel and champagne vinegar.
The lunch and dinner menus are not huge, but each item is very thought out, old standards are subtly tweaked (crab bisque refreshed with tarragon and tangerine), and the result is a sophisticated menu to appeal to varied tastes. A special gold star for Willix’s delicious sides, which never seem like an after-thought. I could be happy with a bowl of that wilted escarole with cherries alone, sans sausage, or ditto the oyster mushroom, bacon, shallot accompaniment to the pink and just-fatty-enough slices of duck breast. Braised lamb comes with kuri squash puree, pickled plum and ginger and the horseradish smoked potatoes, that come as a side or with the butcher steak, are destined to be a signature for Latitude. The entrees are delicious. But just as fun is the opportunity to order a bunch of small plates over cocktails and wine or as a meal in themselves. The small plate portions are generous and easily shareable.
The décor at Latitude is a bit generic with the exception of the tiled bar with sunburst fixtures, but once spring comes, that patio will surely be buzzing at all hours with chic, convivial groups. The elliptical, white serving dishes are also really groovy . Because it’s winter, lots of the menu items have an appropriately earthy, wintery, comforting feel but we have a feeling that the attuned chef Willix will shift it up once spring arrives with more lighter fare. Willix seems to have a penchant for making some of his savories a bit too sweet: the color and sweetness of the cherries in the sausage dish were fine, but the tomato conserva for the fried egg-plant might as well have been on the dessert menu. On the other hand, Willix’s desserts are perfectly satisfying without sugar overload. Big props to Willix for serving as his own pastry chef. The nicely textured, seasonal pumpkin pot de creme is heaven and the doughnut holes (light like beignets) with seasonal jam are must-orders. Other menu must orders: a wonderfully garlic-y beef tartare with crostini and aioli—already a signature dish, the tuna ceviche with charred avocado and the sublime duck. We will be back to try the warm bitter green salad with grilled chicory, soft-boiled egg, chevre and grilled croutons as well as the lunch-menu lamb burger with gruyere cheese, rosemary aioli and arugula. A serious wine menu rounds out this global eatery.
Latitude, Phipps Plaza, 3500 Peachtree, 678.990.9463, http://www.latitudeatlanta.com
Te Amo Alma Cocina
LuxeCrush gave a pretty thorough overview of Chef Chad Clevenger even before Alma Cocina opened: http://www.luxecrush.com/grazing/article/this-just-in-new-eats-beats-atl. We just had to find out what this Florida-born, Denver-based chef had up his sleeve. Turns out that he boasted a prestigious stint at Coyote Café in Santa Fe, and staged at two Michelin restaurants on the French Riviera (Le Saint Paul and Le Maximin) before plying his trade as top toque at Agave Grill and Mel’s Bar and Grill, both in Denver. While in the mountains, he also picked up a “Best American Restaurant in Denver” award and was hailed for his pork-centric street cart The Porker. Now, he brings his global technique and tastes and background in Latin cuisine to Alma Cocina, housed in the super tony One Ninety-One Peachtree Tower building downtown (just steps from the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta). Alma Cocina is part of the Fifth Group Family of restaurants that includes South City Kitchen, La Tavola and Ecco.
You can enter Alma Cocina through its own street door, but that’s no fun. We prefer sauntering through the One-Ninety-One office building’s staggering marble lobby with ornate chandeliers and sconces, before hanging a right into the dark, nocturnal, trophy-animal lair, designed by ai3 and Peace Design, that is Alma Cocina. It’s maybe a tad too dark, but decidedly sexy/sultry-- and even more so after one of the serious libations from the bar. No touristy margarita here: theirs are more high-brow with an infusion of blood-orange juice that makes one of its signature sips just peachy in taste and color. A curated collection of nearly 60 first-rate Tequilas is also on order and perhaps, for the first time in Atlanta, an Ice Menu of custom flavored cubes to pair with your straight-up sipping tequila. We are loving this sophisticated new concept. The flavored cubes are as follows: coffee, maple-caramel; dragon fruit, prickly pear; and seasoned coconut water, fresh pineapple. As the cubes slowly melt, they impart their subtle flavors to the premium tequilas.
After drinks at the bar, slip into a cozy leather booth or a round table beneath one of those rustic Guatemalan chocolate kettles repurposed as a chandelier, and order up. Again, like at Latitude, the small plates options offer many more ways to tingle the palette than the entrée offerings, but it’s up to you. LuxeCrush didn’t sample the main plates (platos mayor) but we did plenty of damage to the small plates side of the menu. Everything we tasted was delicious with the exception of the odd smoked grapes and somewhat tepid cornmeal-crusted goat cheese balls in the grilled little gem salad ( as compared to the fried goat cheese balls at Ecco). But we were here to taste Mexican versions of tapas and those dishes all delivered commendably on the vibrant flavor front and in terms of offering something fairly new and exciting to Atlanta: nuanced “modern Mexican” or “nueveo pan-Latin” cuisine. These are not straight-up authentic recipes but Clevenger’s own clever riffs on Latin cuisine.
The large menu includes Clevenger’s award-winning port Pibil Tamale wrapped in bacon-corn masa, but we were just as smitten by the pork cheek arepa (translation: the Latin version of meat-filled Asian buns with the tender pork piled into a sweet, doughy bun of masa). Divine. Start with the colorful guacamole tarted up with seasonal chunks of sweet butternut squash, queso fresco and streaked with a zesty chipotle. Sauces at Alma Cocina are accomplished--from the chipotle in the guacamole to the salsa ranchero accompanying the Huitalacoche empandada. You don’t have to pronounce this latter dish properly or even know what it is (the menu’s “corn truffle” description is a rather polite way of saying “corn fungus”) but trust us, this is delicious, one of the best dishes we sampled. Just order it. Taquitos, two to an order, come on tiny corn cakes rather than crispy shells and while the fried avocado one was tasty, it wasn’t as memorable as other dishes we sampled. Another must-try: the Latinized version of potato gratin with goat cheese and poblano. It comes with some of the main plates but can also be ordered as a side. Want something lighter? The yellowtail ceviche (served sashimi style) was refreshing with pickled mango and coconut granita.
It was impossible to properly sample this diverse menu in one sitting so we will be back to sample the Benton’s country ham-flecked Brazilian Feijoada beans, the roasted chicken mole Oaxaca entrée, shrimp and carnitas tacos, and flourless chocolate-ancho cake, to name a few. Clevenger described the ancho cake as something concocted to deliver "the perfect bite" of sweet, spicy, creamy, etc. It occurs to us that most of his dishes accomplish this complex, “perfect bite” balance. Instead of the ancho cake, the meal ended on this night with the ethereal churros, served with three playful dipping sauces: Meyer lemon, salted caramel and chocolate-espresso.
New arrival Clevenger has already carved a unique position for himself with his sophisticated modern Mexican cuisine, served lunch and dinner at Alma Cocina. Now, LuxeCrush appeals to Clevenger for one more task--- break out your pork-centric street cart this spring for major, cheffy street cred!
Alma Cocina, One-Ninety-One Peachtree Tower, 191 Peachtree Street, 404.968.9662 or http://www.alma-atlanta.com
Some of you dear readers may chafe at the thought of eating a-la-mall or heading all the way downtown to dine, but if so, you are missing out on two young chefs at Latitude and Alma Cocina whose stars are swiftly rising.