Table Hopping — Alma Cocina, Atlanta

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Alma Cocina is part of a rebirth of downtown dining as an alternative to chains like Planet Hollywood and Hooters and an easy choice for me as one who is looking for something more in a dining experience.  Open less than a year, the Fifth Group with Chef Clevenger at the helm has created a modern Latin escape in the middle of the south where the city population is less than six percent Hispanic. While the current audience may be conventioneers like myself, office workers, a few tourists, this is a destination that Atlantans may want to put on their must try list.

Latin Elegance. Warm woods, sleek and modern and a decor that reflect “Latin” without yet another stucco and tiled environment. Friendly southern hospitality exudes from the staff who are knowledgeable about the menu and make even a solo diner feel comfortable. Even I felt hip sipping my vanilla hinted mojito while waiting for the Salsa Sampler (fire-roasted tomato, tomatillo-avocado, salsa negra and roasted mango-charred with chicharrones, plantain, malanga coco, corn chips.) Honey, this is today and bold flavors with a counterpoint of textures take us out of all that is ordinary.

Salsa Sampler from Alma Cocina

What lengths you would take to get the recipe you wanted? I often wonder about those who write in to Bon Appétit requesting recipes for favorites or dishes so special they are compelled to write in.  Let’s just say I am a little more impatient. Why not just ask the Chef directly, “would you share this recipe?” With that I scheduled a phone call.

I’ve learned long ago, that to ask the question is to be willing to hear no, but hope for yes. With such a mindset, there is little risk in asking. After all, it is just a question. My travels may take me near or far, but the human element remains the same. If you are interested enough, polite, enthused and sincere, people will respond in a like manner. Or not. My current record favors the former rather than the latter and my darling dear just chalks it up to his perception that, “people just like to do things for you.”

And so, I engaged in a conversation with Chef Chad Clevenger, Executive Chef of Alma Cocina in Atlanta about cantaloupe soup — gazpacho rather, with lump crab and cilantro micro greens. Earning the best taste award at the annual A Taste of the Highlands,  a favorite food festival of the area. By popular request Clevenger’s concoction made the summer seasonal menu. It may be that “Every one’s palate is different,” according to Chef Chad but this dish is a runaway winner. Creamy texture, surprisingly savory and a touch of fruity heat. The tender crab plays well with the bright cilantro microgreens and the drizzle of avocado oil brings in a bit of butteriness.

Cantaloupe Gazpacho from Alma Cocina

Chef Chad is surprisingly humble and modest considering the bold and textured dishes that make up the menu of Alma Cocina and attributes his success with constantly learning and searching out what the industry has to offer. “After culinary school, I pushed myself to learn as much as possible, read a lot of cookbooks, cook at home, working to better my technique and palate. I eat out to see why chefs are doing different things.” His efforts are playing off too, with an invitation to be the Host Chef of 2012 Atlanta Rising Stars, scoring high on flavors and plating at this event put on by StarChef’s, an online magazine for culinary insiders. Not bad for the new guy in town with less than a year in Atlanta.

From wacky combinations to micro gastronomy, he’s watching it all and blending up his own inventive fusion of modern Mexican in Atlanta.  Chef Chad is inviting patrons to experience the depth and differences of Latin cuisine beyond the burrito and enchiladas they might be used to, all the while incorporating fresh seasonal locally sourced ingredients. Which brings us to the gazpacho.

Originally created for the Taste of the Highlands, an annual food festival held in April and knowing it would be hot (it is Atlanta after all) he devised an easy to prepare dish that could be served to hundreds of festival attendees. I asked him about featuring habanero chilies and if he finds people more accepting of this pepper or scared of it?

“I  think a lot of people are timid about peppers, when tasting chili or trying them. They think it is all heat based.  It is flavor-based too, harbanaros have quite a bit of fruity flavor which tends to blend well. In this gazpacho there is just enough. We don’t want to blow out your palate, you need to be able to finish eight ounces of soup.”

Chef Chad specializes in Andalusian style gazpacho, pureed versus chunky and throughout the summer will make up fresh batches of watermelon, red or yellow tomato and tomatillo versions along with this crowd pleasing cantaloupe version. He makes a base which takes it cue from the colors of the primary ingredient, then by adding a variety of garnishes he increases the complexity of the flavors and textures in the creamy base. Even though he did not give me the exact recipe (which would have meant converting restaurant quantities down to 4-6 servings) he did give me these tips.

Yellow Onion
A little bit of Garlic
Yellow Bell Peppers
A little bit of Sherry Vinegar
Orange Juice
Olive Oil
Lots of Cantaloupe

Directions: Blend it all together.
Tip: Start out with just a little bit off the side of the harbanero, without the seeds. Taste and adjust if you need more. “Try to make it as savory as possible and still have a little of the sweet cantaloupe in it.” Chef Chad said one of the most important thinks he learned from Chef Mark Miller was the importance of tasting the food before it is served. This is the best of habits a cook can have.
When I asked him if he was always this creative, he said,  “My dad was a guitar player. I don’t know if that rubbed off on me any at all.” My guess, when guests taste Chef Chad’s creations the music comes from the “hmmms and awwws.” Vocal notes of appreciation for this symphony of flavors.

I will do my best to recreate this fabulous dish and will share my efforts in a future post.

Alma Cocina
Pros: Bold, Fresh and Modern Latin Flavors, Excellent Service, Affordable Pricing, Gluten-free and Kid’s Menu available.
Cons: Sorry, I didn’t have any on my Thursday night visit. I heard it gets busy on game days and it is a downtown location.
One Ninety One Peachtree Tower (adjacent to downtown Ritz-Carlton)
191 Peachtree Street NE
Atlanta, GA 30303
Prices: Small Plates $6-$10, Large Plates $19-$28. Full Bar.
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6 Responses to Table Hopping — Alma Cocina, Atlanta

  1. Bentobird says:

    Oh fantastic post! Loved reading about your immersive experience of creative and delicious cuisine at Alma Cucina…and about how you obtained that dazzling recipe. What a happy few minutes to visit here!

  2. Anonymous says:

    simply wonderful

  3. Jeanne says:

    Amazing what people will give you if you just ask nicely! 🙂 Love this idea – we had a melon soup topped with smoked ham amuse bouche in France that I am desperate to recreate soon…

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