One of the most mortifying moments of the 20-plus years that I've been writing this column occurred at Einstein's (1077 Juniper St., 404-876-7925) more than 10 years ago.
I was a regular at their seen-and-be-seen patio, usually eating salads. Then arrived the fateful day I decided to sample their menu for review. I wrote a moderately complaining review and when I next visited, I was greeted by a large banner hanging from the restaurant's porch. It instructed diners to call the paper to complain about me.
Another mortifying moment: I was in a group chat on the Internet when I was suddenly attacked as a "pretentious asshole" by someone who turned out to be the manager of Cowtippers (1600 Piedmont Ave., 404-874-3751) at the time. Earlier, after a mediocre review, I had received an avalanche of anonymous, hateful phone calls.
So, my experience with these two popular Midtown restaurants owned by Metrotainment Cafes has not been very positive. I have found them more sensitive to criticism than just about any restaurant I've reviewed. Nevertheless, I decided to visit both last week.
My friend Michael met me at Einstein's and was immediately wowed by the restaurant's interior, which is a far cry from its original look in a barely remodeled cottage with scrawlings on the walls. Now the main dining room looks kind of retro-Euro with a cathedral ceiling over the bar, paneled walls and light fixtures that look vaguely like a praying mantis suspended over each table.
A second, larger dining room was in use by Coca-Cola. Our meal was punctuated by wild applause and shrieks of delight. It's good to know that working for the soft drink company produces such pleasure.
The menu, I'm sorry to say, features nothing very creative, and taste was disappointing. A duck confit quesadilla came to the table looking like a pinwheel big enough for two people or more. Despite the huge size, duck was in short supply, as was the blend of four cheeses.
Michael ordered flash-fried calamari with banana peppers and a chipotle tartar sauce. While the squid, mainly tiny rings, tasted fine, the fried banana peppers seemed over-abundant, though I did like their taste. We also sampled the day's special of tortilla soup -- a thick potage topped with crispy tortilla chips. Sorry, but it was exceedingly over-seasoned in that way so many restaurants flavor their "Mexican" dishes.
Entrees were better. Michael made the superior choice with half a rotisserie chicken lightly coated in jerk seasonings. It was served over black beans with glossy, sweet fried plaintains.
My blackened, bourbon-glazed pork tenderloin -- served with some sautéed veggies and cubes of andouille sausage -- was cooked fine, although I didn't encounter much "blackening." And for that, I'm grateful. This is the first time I've run into that passé style of cooking in a long time. There's also blackened tilapia and a blackened ribeye on the menu.
For dessert we chose peach poundcake grilled in butter, served with toasted pecans and a bourbon-caramel sauce. Nothing to dislike there unless you are averse to huge amounts of sugar and fat.
The restaurant has a pleasant, well-trained wait staff. Joey at the bar struggled for half an hour to produce tonic water for me. The fountain tap was dispensing only a flat drink. Our server Ken, an Emory law student, was terrific and is hereby anointed Waitron of the Week. Michael and I did our best to talk him out of a career that anyone with a soul usually ends up hating.
So, the restaurant has a great look, a terrific staff and dated mediocre food. Do people really still eat coconut shrimp? Oy.
Earlier in the week, I visited Cowtippers with my friend Jeff. We ate on the patio under a threatening sky. The wind of a coming storm caused a gay pride flag to keep flagellating my face. Eventually it began sprinkling, but we finished before the downpour arrived.
We ate relatively lightly. I ordered "chili con queso" for us and was surprised to see the melted cheese topped, not with spicy chili peppers, but with a spoon full of what looked like chili con carne. I asked the server if we'd been served the wrong item, since the menu says that the melted cheese is served with "Texas chilis." You don't pluralize chili con carne. He assured me we'd gotten the right thing. "Those are the only chilis we have," he said. Uh, OK.
You know what? It wasn't bad.
I decided to visit the restaurant because Jeff had told me he'd found it much improved in a visit a few weeks earlier. Indeed, my filet, cooked medium-rare, was a great bargain. The "loaded potato," a baked one full of sour cream, chives and fluorescent yellow cheese, was too ... too potato-bar.
It began thundering before we had time for dessert.
Here and there
According to gossip on one of our local foodie websites, Richard Blais will be leaving Atlanta to become the "culinary creative director" for Barton G. The Restaurant in South Beach Miami, effective July 24. Blais will be a huge loss for Atlanta.
Hong Kong Harbor still cooks the city's best salt-and-pepper squid. I had a late meal of it there last week, alone with a book. The restaurant is also one of the few in the Midtown area that stays open late weekdays ... Mojito, inside the Wyndham Midtown and operated by the owners of defunct Mambo, has gotten a complete re-do. Check it out. It's serving the most serious Cuban food in town ...