Being the food-crazed soul that I am, I tend to mark the passing of time by the openings and closings of restaurants. In 1999, husband-and-wife chefs Dan and Ticha Krinsky took over the tiny space up the street from Ansley Mall that theretofore had been my favorite writing haunt, Urban Coffee Bungalow. At first disgruntled to be losing the funky, cozy coffee shop I'd frequented since moving to Atlanta, I was intrigued to learn that a bistro highlighting cuisines of Latin America rarely seen beyond Buford Highway would be taking its place. I moved my center of operations to Caribou Coffee, and Tierra was born.
Tierra builds its fusion pan-Latin offerings without pulling in distracting Asian elements (no blue corn-crusted Peking duck with moo-shu-chipotle pancakes, thank you kindly), largely resulting in fresh, appealing dishes with an inventive twist of the unfamiliar.
The smoky, earthy notes of creamy black bean soup ($4.95) with apple-cured bacon, slivers of fried plantains and cr<\#143>me fraiche are a soothing way to be indoctrinated into Tierra's world of flavors. The same goes for a bowl of pudgy, tender mussels in a broth flavored with medium-hot pasilla chile and given a textural boost with corn and strips of crunchy, juicy jicama ($7.95). The house salad ($4.50) gets extra punch from finely tuned sherry vinaigrette and toasted pistachios.
The cheese pupusa ($4.50) has been on the menu since day one, and though you can go to a Salvadoran restaurant in Chamblee and find them for a buck apiece, Tierra's is commendable. Pupusas are to El Salvador what tortillas are to Mexico. The round corn pancake oozes hot white cheese, and is topped with a tart cabbage slaw called curtido, which accentuates and offsets the sweetness of the pupusa.
Pionono ($7.25) looks like a new-fangled fusion concoction, but is actually a traditional Peurto Rican dish that, like the pupusa, achieves satisfying contrapuntal effect. Sweet fried plaintains are shaped into small circular vessels, then filled with picadillo, a savory mixture of ground beef spiked with garlic, tomatoes and olives.Entrees swerve between adventurous experiments and uninspired combinations. Trout relleno ($18.50), a menu staple these days, is a piscine twist on the classic chili dish. The boneless filet is stuffed with spicy, crunchy goodies including corn, poblano peppers and cheese, and draped with a roasted tomato sauce. It's a filling dish, but it's also hard to put your fork down. Free-range (hallelujah!) beef tenderloin ($21.50) rests in the center of an emerald pool of tomatillo-cilantro sauce, atop a gordita, identified by the handy-dandy pamphlet of Tierra-centric food terms I filched from the table as "a thick tortilla that is pan fried" (translation: It tastes like a pupusa without the gooey cheese center).
Another veteran of the menu, shrimp baked in cheese Brazilian-style ($17.95), has never held much appeal for me, though I know its fans are legion. Served with converted rice and calabaza (a pumpkin-like squash), the dish quickly becomes monotonous mouthfuls of queso and starch.
Within the last year, the Krinskys have rotated new menu items on a weekly basis, some more successful than others. A chicken breast swiped with a light, moistening peanut-based sauce comes well-partnered with a side of quinoa, that little spherical grain with the squiggle running through its center ($17). Sour pickled chayote (a south-of-the-border cousin of the pear) and a tuft of pickled onions elevate the flavors and add intrigue.
Seared scallops arranged around a mound of linguine in a curry cream sauce with bits of tomato and chayote ($21.50) doesn't offer the same captivating juxtapositions. And an Argentinean beef carbonada (or stew) with peaches named among its ingredients is oddly bland ($18). Both dishes have potential -- I'd just like to see the same presence of mind applied to these specials as is evident in so many of the menu's other choices.The wine list at Tierra is one of my favorites in town. It's not extensive, but the selection is succinctly tailored to the cuisine, and most bottles are under $35. Try the floral Gascon Viognier ($24) or soft, ripe berry-ish Norton Privada blend ($30).Desserts see the restaurant's culinary vision to a harmonious completion. Inveterate sweet tooths will melt over the tres leches cake, sweet and moist ($5.50). I'm particularly enamored of the fig pie ($5.75) made with a silken layer of custard on top -- a glamorous, grown-up riff on Fig Newtons. Homemade lime ice cream ($3.95) induces a bracing shiver from its thrilling tartness.
Tierra is a welcome reprieve of provocative cooking and competent service in an area of town notorious for the uneven quality of its scattered restaurants. It's close enough to the Woodward Arts Center to start an evening out on the right foot, and servers are mindful to ask early arrivals if they have a show to catch.