Carmen Cappello made quite a name for himself at Mix, a restaurant specializing in small plates that feature novel combinations and first-class ingredients. Who wouldn't be intrigued by Cappello's latest endeavor? He's now executive chef at the brand-new Sweet Lowdown (942 Peachtree St., 404-207-1324) whose menu features "modern Southern" cuisine.
This restaurant, across from Metropolis in Midtown, is no boutique cafe. The owners of Fuego Spanish Grill have spent $2 million to create a two-story restaurant of 11,000 square feet, including a downstairs dining room, an upstairs special events room and four private dining rooms. The place has three kitchens.
I've only seen the downstairs dining room and it is a looker, designed by Brian Patrick Flynn. A huge black-and-white photo mural is behind the bar. Walls are predominantly "red rock," a color inspired by barbecue sauce, according to PR material. Part of the floor looks rather like cowhide. Booths are huge and cozy. Lighting is warm and bright enough that you can kick back and read.
The only peculiar effect, cited by a friend, are three plasma televisions, situated high up. Their function is a complete mystery, since you can't hear them and they don't feature particularly interesting video. "Why does every restaurant have to have plasma TVs now?" my friend asks. Beats me.
The restaurant had been open only a couple of weeks when we visited on a Sunday night, so there were a number of glitches, but service -- from our waiter and the restaurant manager -- more than compensated. They dealt with the glitches with a sense of humor that a new undertaking of this scale must require.
I did find our waiter's identity confusing at first. He was wearing a chef's coat. I finally asked, "Do you work in the kitchen, too?"
"No," he replied, "this is our uniform." He looked around. "It's not the best uniform I've ever seen and it has to be washed every single day."
I did not find the food as interesting as Cappello's cooking at Mix, but the menu is definitely in flux. I started with a redfish Niçoise salad. It featured three large pieces of deliciously grilled fish over red potatoes, boiled quail eggs and some green beans. Weirdly, the menu said the salad also included boiled peanuts, but there were none.
Wayne started with a large plate of skewered fried chicken livers, faintly redolent of rosemary and served with a watermelon and red onion salsa. A honey-mustard sauce was an odd accompaniment to my taste, but the dish was otherwise solid.
I also ordered a plate of fried dill pickle slices, which caused a flashback to a night I spent in a Florida trailer park many years ago. This white-trash dish is irresistible, although the buttermilk-blue cheese dressing seemed as odd a sauce as the honey-mustard for the livers.
For an entree, I chose the day's special -- fried chicken. There was no description of it on the menu and the waiter told me I had no choice about what pieces I'd get. Fine, I'll eat what I'm given. It was the evening's main disappointment. The halved breast was overcooked and quite dry, but the dark pieces were fine. They were all topped with a strange gravy and glued to a mound of overly dry mashed potatoes.
Wayne made the better choice, a "bacon steak" -- pork belly -- with the same seared redfish featured in my appetizer. This was served over mac and cheese with some green beans and pickled okra. Some will find the pork too fatty, but then some people don't like stewed chicharrones, globs of pure pork fat popular in Mexico. Let them eat Lean Cuisine.
Dessert turned up another glitch. I ordered the bread pudding with pecan brittle and sweet potato ice cream. The pudding was served ice cold. When I mentioned this to the server, the manager came and whisked it away, saying it was supposed to be warmed. He recommended I try the lemon cheese layer cake with raspberry marmalade and lemon sherbet instead. It was OK.
Again, Wayne made the better choice with lime meringue pie. It was garnished with raspberries instead of the menu's promised candied lime wedges, but he was happy for the change.
The menu at Sweet Lowdown is fairly expansive and I'm anxious to try more of the smaller dishes, Cappello's forte at Mix. The restaurant is also open for lunch, offering everything from a Reuben sandwich to rabbit pot pie with a crawfish veloute and tasso ham. Prices generally are midrange to low.
Here and there
In my review of Shaun's, I mentioned that a lot of chefs seem to have developed a heavy hand with the salt lately. Steve Hurlburt wrote this in reply:
"Yes, yes, YES! Too much in the soup at Alon's. Too much on anything at Woodfire. Too much everywhere. And it didn't used to be that way.
Now, I'm not for going back to Paul Luna's food Nazi days ('How dare you tweak my seasoning!'), but, come on, Shaun (and everybody), salt minimally -- enough to bring out the taste -- and then let me dump it on if my blood pressure is too low."...
Speaking of Alon's, I stopped there last Friday and ordered a panini made with bresaola and an intense peppercorn sauce. I want more. ...
New York City has banned the use of trans fats by city restaurants, from fast food to fine-dining. These fats inarguably raise the risk of heart disease significantly. The city has also required fast food restaurants to post, in large type, the calorie content of their menu items.
Of course, this has set off a libertarian protest that people should have the freedom to devour fat of any type and quantity. I have long annoyed friends at Starbucks by pointing out the stunning calorie content of the coffee shop's blended drinks that contain whipped cream -- basically a third of the normal adult's total daily calorie allowance.
Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer and we are amid a true epidemic of childhood obesity. These actions by New York seem like reasonable steps to protect the public health to me. Trans fats are basically poisonous, and seeing the calorie content of fast food doesn't deprive anyone of the choice to pig out.