First look: Cuerno

A taste of Spain comes to Atlanta

First of all, there are no bull testicles on the menu. That's not to say the restaurant doesn't have a pair on display and, while you can't eat them, you are welcome to rub them.

I'm talking about the large statue of a charging bull that dominates the dining room of Cuerno (905 Juniper St., 678-904-4584). The sculpture, by Thomas Prochow, is anatomically complete, and Cuerno owner Riccardo Ullio invites diners to rub the testicles in the same way stockbrokers rub those of the bull sculpture on Wall Street. Doing so is supposed to bring good luck.

Cuerno is next door to super-sleek Beleza, Ullio's Brazilian juice and raw bar. He calls the cozier interior of Cuerno a blend of the pagan and the Christian that is so characteristic of Spain. The bull was a symbol of the Mithraic cult, which was Christianity's main rival during its infancy in the Mediterranean world. The bullfight is a surviving echo of the cult's ritual sacrifice of a bull. And, it's theorized, Christianity endowed the figure of Satan with horns – "cuernos" – as part of its campaign against Mithraism.

The Christian is represented in the restaurant by a portrait of the Virgin that seems virtually etched into a gray wall. The restaurant is otherwise a stimulating blend of Alhambra-like mosaic tile, stacked slate, glass tile behind the bar, wood tables and flourishes of blood red here and there. The kitchen is open to view, and the dining room is divided into two areas, one more informal, although the menu is the same in both.

Cuerno has been a long time in planning, and it had only been open a week when I visited, so this is a first impression. Ullio is a perfectionist, and he and chef Ken Bouche are still tweaking the menu and experimenting with the "plancha," a super-hot, metal-plate grill that is particularly wonderful for cooking seafood.

For example, we sampled a bowl of mussels cooked on the grill that were fat and juicy, redolent of garlic, and strong in their natural flavor. Because the plancha cooks them so quickly, there's no need to add wine and no worries about the flesh drying into chewy knots. Yet they were served in a bowl with a bit of liquid that turned out to be the natural juices of the mussels released after cooking.

Shrimp coated in parsley and garlic and cooked on the plancha were similarly pure in flavor; the seafood's taste beamed right through the spices. Warning: The shrimp are served with the heads attached, which is fine by me. They add flavor.

A traditional tapa I've eaten all over Spain is "patatas bravas," fried potatoes in a tomato sauce. In Madrid, tapas bars compete for the most flavorful or unusual sauce. Cuerno's is mildly spicy and creamy, generously spread over the crispy chunks of potato. Another traditional tapa is deep-fried peppers from Padrón. These chilies are serrano-shaped but rarely hot. In fact, they often are sweet.

We also sampled squid stuffed with sofrito. Sofrito is the ubiquitous, highly reduced tomato sauce usually flavored with garlic and onions. Although the squid were tender and sweet, the sofrito did not offer enough contrast, flavor- or texture-wise.

Cuerno's menu was developed by a consulting chef from Spain, and the dish that has brought him and his town the most fame is on the menu. It's onion soup with a surprising ingredient. The bowl comes to the table streaked with a balsamic reduction and a nugget of tomato and raisin chutney. The server pours the creamy soup into the bowl and you get an immediate whiff of mild onions, whose taste turns out to be sweetened by the chutney.

Here's a second warning: Carry plenty of money if you're going to order entrees. They start at $24 for cod cooked with honey and rosemary oil and rise to $36 for a pedigree rib eye steak.

But the big attraction are the paellas, all of which are made for two and cost $18 per person. Wayne and I had a week in Spain a few years ago when we ate nothing but paella each evening in a tiny restaurant where we had to make a daily reservation. It was winter and we sat at blanket-draped tables that held hot coals to keep diners warm. I've eaten the dish numerous times during other trips to Spain.

Cuerno's is the best paella I've ever tasted in our city. Paella is most associated with Valencia, and Cuerno features four versions from there. One of them is actually made with vermicelli. There's also a paella-like dish from Catalunya, featuring soupy rice and lobster.

We tried the classic Valencian with shrimp, mussels, clams, cuttlefish, chicken, rabbit and vegetables, along with a heavy dose of sofrito, served in the traditional pan in which it was cooked. The meat and seafood were perfect, the rice was velvety, flavors were distinct. The only oddity about it was the lack of a true socarrat, the caramelized bottom layer of rice you normally get with a paella. At Cuerno, the crunchy layer, light as it was, seemed to be on top.

Other paellas feature squid and cuttlefish or rabbit and snails. There's also a fish and shellfish platter "a la plancha," confit suckling pig, a rack of lamb with vanilla oil and braised veal cheeks. As I said, though, the menu is undergoing continual revisions at this early date.

Our server, Jesse, insisted we try the crema Catalana for dessert. It's like a light version of crème brûlée and is served with a little glass of foamy sweet milk. We also tried the chocolate tart with fresh cheese ice cream and saffron sauce. It was good, but the tart turned out to be the usual warmed Valrhona-type cake. Jesse, one of the most menu-educated servers we've encountered in a long time, was right. The crema was the better choice.

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