"Jennifer Lopez is real nice," he said.
We were dining at Red Chair (550 C Amsterdam Ave., 404-8709-0532). This new restaurant and bar includes enormous video screens and, apparently, we'd hit the place on diva night. They showed Michael Jackson's latest video and, even though it hides his face, we know that lurking under that hat is something that's come to look like the Elephant Man impersonating Diana Ross.
"Poor Michael. He's nice," Wayne said.
Wayne always picks out the niceness in things. I wish I were that way. But then, I'd be eating Egg McMuffins and saying they were real nice.
Like so many restaurants that are more bar backdrop than serious dining venture, Red Chair is a fun experience but isn't going to become anyone's favorite special-occasion spot. The big cavernous room with red neon rings encircling pillars and garage-door windows is all about being seen. You get dinner and the usual eye-fucking that goes on in mainly gay restaurants. I swear to god, I hate being stared at -- admiringly or contemptuously -- while I shove food in my face. The only thing worse is eating in front of that mirrored wall at the Dunk'N Dine.
The restaurant's promo material describes the food as "traditional American comfort food with a twist." Entrees better suit this description than starters, some of which seem like traditional American junk food. Jalapeno poppers and fried cheese scare me. Wayne ordered the "New England quesadilla" ($7.95 and plenty for two). Presumably it earns its name because of the filling of Vermont cheddar and goat cheese with apples, along with prosciutto. But it had a distinct flavor of Indian curry. "You might get this in England but not New England," Mr. Nice dared to say.
I ordered what our nice waiter told me was corn-turkey chowder ($4.25). It wasn't bad but I never encountered a single kernel of corn, though its vague flavor permeated the bowl.
Entrees range from $9.95 for sandwiches to $19.95 for a grilled filet wrapped in bacon. I ordered the rotisserie chicken ($9.95). Half a bird, it was as good as any you'll find in mid-priced restaurants in town. It was served with mashed potatoes allegedly seasoned with garlic that was not evident to me. Grilled baby vegetables, on the other hand, were way garlicky.
Wayne tried the tilapia steamed in parchment with butter, wine, carrots, fennel, cauliflower, and red and yellow peppers ($15.95). Though I didn't care for the melon-pineapple chutney, the dish was acceptable. But I much preferred the chicken. Tilapia is as close to a living faux-fish as we get. Try the peach-barbecued salmon or grilled mahi-mahi and let me know. You'll also find burgers, a grilled chicken sandwich and lasagnas.
Honestly, the place has potential, but, come on, punch up the "twist" on this "traditional" food.
"There was a bunch of very, very busy people in Denver who loved Mexican food but rarely had time to spend dining. They kept trying different fast Mexican food restaurants but always had the same reaction, 'This isn't real.' " So reads the website for Qdoba Mexican Grill, a chain which recently opened its third Atlanta restaurant at 630 Ponce de Leon Ave. (404-892-1156).
The website goes on, "One of those very, very busy people said, 'Even we could do better than this.' The others agreed. And they decided to focus all their attention on opening a whole new style of Mexican restaurant -- where the food is fresh, grilled, prepared fast, right in front of you, exactly the way you want and the atmosphere is fun. They even found a word that had that exact definition. 'Qdoba.' "
Advertising is a marvelous instrument, ladies and gentlemen. And there is a burrito-craving sucker born every minute. If the founders of this restaurant actually think they are providing people an authentic taste of Mexican food, they should invest heavily in Taco Bell.
I recently visited -- and nearly left while I watched an earnest but hyperactive young man partially assemble two burritos I didn't order before finally getting my order for chicken mole right. I forgave the service and then sat down at a table accessorized with a little sign telling me how to eat a burrito. I looked at the wall's big mural of senoritas making tortillas in the Mexican fields. I peeled back the aluminum foil, just the way the sign instructed me, and bit.
Sigh. The "authentic, spicy Mexican mole sauce" is nothing of the kind. The huge burrito ($5.49) is overstuffed with rice and beans (you choose pintos or black beans) and very little chicken. As you pass down the cafeteria-style line, you are offered your choice of salsas (including a decent habanero and verde) and other additions like sour cream or grated, tasteless cheese. The ultimate effect is kitchen sink -- lots of stuff with a vague generalized taste, a memory of your sister's chili playing in your brain.
I also tried the poblano pesto, which sounds delicious, but was bland and bitter. What's the deal?
By way of a reality check, I also visited Raging Burrito (1529 Piedmont, 404-885-9922) last week. Laying no bogus claims to authenticity but offering the popular fusion burrito, Raging continues to do a good job. The chipotle barbecued chicken burrito, seasoned with cilantro and caramelized onions, is delicious, but I'd be happier if they left the rice out and upped the pinto beans. My favorite fusion burrito in town is still the shrimp one at Tortillas, rice-less and stuffed with the best pintos around. But I also routinely crave the Thai chicken burrito at Burrito Art in East Atlanta.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504.