"Is everything here wonderful?" The waitress asks, for the fourth time tonight. Her expression is one of forced and pained enthusiasm. It never ceases to amaze me, the lengths restaurants go to in order to train the personality out of their waitstaff, to make them say and do ridiculous things that are not only unnatural but annoying. It is even more amazing that the public responds to this type of artifice. Rosa Mexicano in Atlantic Station is still doing a good business, months after it opened, months after the novelty of the wall of water with diving dolls and bright pink table settings should have worn off. It must be the food that's bringing them in. Right?
Well, perhaps. There are some dishes on this menu that take Mexican food a step beyond, beyond the soulful and homey dishes that the taquerias and traditional Mexican restaurants turn out, and into the realm of inventive, bold flavors worth serious consideration. Other dishes are decent but hardly worth the price. (Can you even imagine a guacamole so good that it is worth $12?) And other dishes are poorly executed, texturally challenged, or just plain bizarre.
As soon as you sit, you will be steered toward a pomegranate margarita and an order of that $12 guacamole. Both of these "house specialties" are good enough to allow the memory of the pushy way they were sold to you fade away. The margarita is as pink as the décor but is satisfyingly tart, not candy-sweet as the color suggests. The guacamole, made tableside in a molcajete, is as fresh and gratifying as could be asked for.
The rest of the menu is full of triumphs and downfalls. In fact, meals here were a little like a soap opera -- I felt toyed with, being built up only to fall back into drama and then despair. On the bright side of the list of appetizers, the empanadas de jaiba (small, fried golden empanadas filled with subtle and sweet crab meat) are served with fruit and green salsas. Both salsas are complex and have a kick of spice. They almost overwhelm the delicate crab flavor, but if you can achieve the right balance, you're in for a lovely little snack. The zarape de pato is a dish of tortillas layered with pulled duck meat and covered in a yellow pepper and habanero sauce. This is a dish of great complexity, the spice of the habaneros given meaning and depth by the sweet yellow pepper, the duck just greasy enough, the tortillas holding it all together. A dish like this deserves good company.
But very little else matched those heights. The queso fundido is a pan of rubbery melted cheese with some weak chorizo sprinkled throughout. Tortillas are provided to make little tacos, but they're not enough to cut through the greasy textural issues.
Entrees offer a few dishes that are passable. The mole poblano enchiladas offer devotees of the dark and mysterious sauce a fair rendition, although it could use a tad more heat, a little more input from those deep red chilis. The jalapeño potato cake that accompanies the sea bass is much more interesting and savory than the fish itself, which suffers under melted cheese (cheese and fish form a difficult combo to pull off in the best of circumstances, and comes off as a greasy, incompatible marriage here).
A special on a recent evening, braised pork shank, was offensive to that style of cooking, the pork so dry that it looked as if it had been cured rather than cooked in juice. When you think of braised meat, dripping, tender, juicy love should come to mind, but this shank had not a hint of liquid, and two ramekins of sauce on the side didn't make up the difference. Not even close.
One dish simply caused confusion at the table. The entree tuna salad, which is described as avocado leaf-crusted tuna over a mango, jicama and cabbage slaw, was in fact slices of under-seasoned tuna over iceberg lettuce dressed in a creamy dill dressing. Dill? Yes, dill -- no jicama, no mango, just lettuce tasting slightly kosher.
Servers here are a lot of things -- robotic, efficient and intent on the upsell. One thing they are not is happy. One night, while struggling with a wine bottle, a member of our party suggested a different wine tool she had found easier to use. "This is the wine tool they gave us, and we're not allowed to bring our own," the server replied. "This whole place is very corporate. We don't have a say in anything." Then, realizing she had lapsed significantly from the script, she departed quickly, returning a moment later with another, "Is everything wonderful?"
No, dear, everything is not wonderful. Everything is passable. Well, maybe not everything. Some of it is great, some of it is fine and some of it is horrid. I understand the yearning for high-class Mexican food in a fun and fancy setting, and I hope that one day we will see that restaurant in our fair city. But all the pink margaritas in the world can't convince me that this is it.