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Truckin

Pedal to the metal at Diesel's in Decatur

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Best to hit the brakes when passing Diesel's, a retro-American that purrs like a Ford Thunderbird. Open since January on Decatur's eastside, the casual bar-cafe offers solid comfort food, slick, assured service and an assortment of felt-tip pens for doodling on the paper-topped tables. (Closet artists take note: Drawings judged worthy of further display are immediately taped to the walls.)

Can't eat art, not unless one hankers for ink- and gravy-stained butcher paper. Best to start with crab cake spring rolls, otherwise. Hot, crisp, greaseless finger-food fun, the shareable trio of wraps is served with a dish of homey, Houston's-style Thousand Island dip and garnished with chopped green onions and parsley ($7). For something a bit more exotic, the nam sod quartet -- four large cabbage-leaf wedges heaped with minced turkey that's lightly sauteed with peanuts and spices -- should satisfy. Purists may want to ask that the Thai-pepper heat be turned up a bit, though ($4).

No tweaks necessary on the baby spinach salad with warm bacon dressing, croutons, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs and sizable hunks of real, honest-to-Omaha smoked bacon. What's not to like when the spinach leaves are clean and crisp, the dressing delectable, the assemblage perfectly turned out ($5)? A garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette is almost as good ($4).

American-regional sandwiches should suit the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. A grilled shrimp po' boy garnished with lettuce, tomato and remoulade is simply wonderful, as good as can be found locally. Served with a side dish, and with fried shrimp rather than grilled an option, the medium-size sandwich is worth a trip from Peachtree City ($8). A juicy, half-pound Angus burger with haystack fries works less well because its soft, challah-style bun falls apart faster than one can eat it ($7). Other one-handers are available, including B.L.T., Reuben, portabella burger and chicken and crab cake po' boys.

Campfire grilled salmon with molasses-bourbon glaze and two sides is agreeably sweet, fresh and delicious, a real bargain entree at $11. Whole fried Rock Cornish hen with garlic and Cajun spices, a novelty, though slightly dry, is much more fun than it sounds ($12). Mojo-marinated pork tenderloin and jerked leg of lamb, both served with black beans, rice and salsa, are both heavy and unremarkable as Picadilly's best ($12 each).

The salmon, the hen and one's own outlook on life all benefit from a scoop of white-peppery mashed potatoes with the gravy of the day -- port wine reduction with mushrooms, for instance. As is true for much of the menu, the serving is large enough to take home for the next day's lunch or dinner.

If every kitchen has a blind spot, Diesel's is non-starch vegetable sides. Carrots accompanying the Cajun hen tasted like waxed cardboard box. Steamed broccoli tossed with the carrots were crisp and tasty, yet broccoli served with the salmon a week earlier was simply tasteless. A new supplier or revised cooking techniques may be in order.

Cakes are baked by the owner-chef's mother. Save room. Trust me. Yellow layer cake splashed with liqueur, iced with chocolate buttercream and resting on a slather of raspberry jam is cosmic, homemade-tasting yet professional. Butterscotch cake is in the same league. But flame-warmed chocolate fondue with marshmallows, strawberries, pound cake and dipping forks is just a bit too retro. Save it for next year.

Diesel's ambience is scruffy-scrubbed, a gamine with a Camel in her mouth, the latest take on folksy-industrial integrity. Concrete block walls are painted green, navy and terra cotta. Light fixtures are fashioned from buckets. Picket fences serve as space dividers -- but do nothing to keep bar-smokers' exhaust from drifting over to the dining area. The house wine, Estrella, is as folksy-industrial as the decor but definitely drinkable and served in large portions ($4). Premium and import beers are offered in more variety. Servers know what they have to sell and they deliver it swiftly and with notable friendliness.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or leave voice mail at 404-614-2514.

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