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Holy guacamole!

Rosa Mexicano brings merit to Atlantic Station dining

I swore aloud that I wouldn't launch into another tirade about Atlantic Station's aesthetics when I left the house to visit Rosa Mexicano (245 18th St., 404-347-4090) last Wednesday night. But — madre mía! — every time I visit the place, I get creeped out.

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This time, Atlantic Station looked to me like a giant toy representation of a mall, something that a model train should be running around. It's all so phony that, still recovering from knee surgery, I pushed my walker across the cute little useless plaza and toy street, feeling like a cartoon of myself. In turn, I felt the impulse to scream obscenities, much like that woman who used to hang out at the Five Points MARTA Station.

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I have to admit, I was dreading going to Rosa because of the same feeling. What the hell could a big, glitzy New York-spawned Mexican restaurant be like in Atlantic Station? I'd already been disappointed by the big, glitzy, faux-New Orleans restaurant there, Copeland's Cheesecake Bistro. I'd read breathless descriptions of Rosa's huge waterfall, studded with statues of divers like those who sail off the cliffs in Acapulco — and I'd shuddered.

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Of course, I was wrong. First of all, the 18-foot waterfall (described in some places like a realistic depiction of Acapulco) is a huge abstraction. The statues are smaller than Barbie and hotter than Ken. The effect is hypnotic and amusing. Despite the name Rosa (which means "pink"), the restaurant's walls are way orange. The carpet is striped in primary colors. There are a few native metal ornaments on the walls and some static light projections that suggest both flowers and Aztec ornamentation. The design, by David Rockwell, is completely free of clichés, except maybe the ceiling's white Christmas tree lights. When I visited, the aural environment was clean of stereotypes, too. I didn't hear any blaring mariachi music or even the slightly less annoying salsa.

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The food is contemporary, like you might find in Mexico City. It's firmly grounded in Mexico's traditional rustic cuisine, with its abundant use of chilis and sauces, but it's definitely given an urban presentation.

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Don't even try to resist the usual starter, guacamole made tableside in a molcajete, a lava bowl. This is the restaurant's signature dish, and the waiter tells you about it before he even takes your beverage order. You get the feeling that if you don't order it, you will immediately identify yourself as a philistine. "So, yeah, sure, we'll have that," I told our server Harley, one of the best waiters I've encountered in a long time. He's too good to be Waitron of the Week. Let's call him Waitron of the Day of the Dead.

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Perhaps this performance of making guacamole tableside, with some of the seasonings ground in the molcajete until they form a paste, is an entertaining drama worth the $12 for one or two avocados. I'm a bit dubious, although there's no denying it is fabulous. And thank you so much for bringing warmed tortillas to the table in which to fold the stuff, instead of requiring us to eat it with the usual chips (also provided). Two sauces, one red and one green, were provided and both kicked ass, as do all of Rosa's sauces.

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We also ordered a starter quesadilla filled with hongos (wild mushrooms) and the delectable huitlacoche, the fungus harvested from corn and called the Mexican truffle. It was also filled with melted Chihuahua cheese. Adjectives that come to mind: gooey, pungent, earthy, crisp. Drag those adjectives thorough the slightly sour piquancy of a raw green sauce.

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The restaurant offers a special chocolate menu through March. Some people find the Mexican mole (a dark, fruity, chili-smoldering sauce touched with chocolate) unsettling. I love it. Rosa offered lamb chops not exactly grilled with mole but marinated in an achiote sauce with a bit of chocolate. The three double chops were served with some huitlacoche-corn soufflé and nopalitos. The sauce was subtle and compelling enough to make me want to strip its glazed remainder from the chop bones.

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Wayne ordered a stellar dish from the regular menu: tablones. These are grilled, boneless beef short ribs. I can't believe the ribs weren't cooked further because they had the texture of pot roast and had heavily absorbed the mestiza sauce of tomato, tomatillos and chipotles. The dish was served with rajas. Pureed black beans and rice were also on the table.

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For dessert, we ordered the chocolate menu's special. It was the evening's definite low point. It featured a chocolate almond cake with a salsa of pomegranate seeds, chopped almonds and mandarin oranges. I don't like the combination of citrus and chocolate in hardly any form, but even subtracting the flavor clash, the cake itself was a terrible mediocrity. It was topped by a zingy, refreshing mescal-hibiscus ice cream, however.

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Service was excellent. I was happy — and surprised — to see Derron Deraney working there as assistant general manager. One of the owners of Toast, he has decided to try work in a high-volume restaurant for a while. I also spotted one of my favorite servers from the King and I. Plus, I saw about 50 people I know, all of whom I wanted to ask: "Why are you here in Atlantic Station when you don't have to be?"

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The answer is obvious. Rosa, at last, makes going to Atlantic Station worthwhile!



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