First look: Luna Nueva

"I am from India," the man who owns Luna Nueva (1150-B Euclid Ave. 404-521-3555), a new Mexican restaurant in Little Five Points, announced by way of introducing himself. "And my wife is from Iowa." He whipped out his iPhone and showed us her picture.

He explained that the two of them were in Mexico City when they dined at a popular restaurant that, it turned out, had lost its lease. "So," he said, "I asked the chef, 'Why don't you come back to America with us?'" The chef, Jorge Villarreal, had worked in the U.S. before, and accepted the offer.

Luna Nueva would be a strange place even without its odd multicultural management. It's in the original space occupied by La Fonda and was Miro's Garden after that. The latter turned La Fonda's sunny decor gloomy with dark paint and low lighting, and little has changed in that respect. The space makes me sad, anyway, because it features a fountain by Christine Sibley, the late artist who was my neighbor for several years.

In my couple of visits to the 3-month-old restaurant, I've found it nearly empty. If you go online and read customer reviews on sites like Yelp, most of them are brutal. Recent comments seem a bit more positive. I bet they'd all be a lot more positive if the restaurant had a liquor license and was serving up cheap margaritas. It's amazing how much mediocre Mexican food apparently improves after a couple of those.

The menu, which boasts that chef Villarreal is offering the city the genuine cuisine of Mexico City, is definitely unique in some respects, and my food was better than the experiences reported on Yelp. For example, I haven't seen cordero (lamb) on any Mexican menus in town that I recall. This is indeed a specialty of Mexico City. Here, it's slow-cooked with an unspecified adobo and served as large, fork-tender chunks. The huge serving – enough to make five tacos, if you choose to eat it that way – is good but lacks the zing of a potent adobo.

I did fold the chunks into warm house-made corn tortillas with pico de gallo and refried beans, both of which were tasty. Rice was the usual filler. I was also given a container of guacamole, which, despite the menu's claim about its being "real," tasted almost gritty it had so much seasoning in it. Why do so many people refuse to let an avocado have its own flavor? Even when they're bland, avocados taste better than onion powder.

While the lamb was good enough that I'd return for it, chicken with mole poblano was a significant disappointment. Its blend of chicken stock, chocolate and chilies – trujillos, pasillas and anchos – offered faint flavor. Worse, it was way too salty for my taste.

We also sampled three tacos. For inexplicable reasons, the restaurant does not sell them individually. You have to buy plates of three, although you can mix them up. These, made with corn tortillas, were certainly more authentic than what you get at the usual Tex-Mex joint but probably not up to the fare at many taquerias on Buford Highway.

A fish taco, flavored with chipotle and "lemon ranch salsa," included chunks of virtually tempura-fried tilapia. Another blended ground chorizo with red potatoes. It was spiked with oregano and chili flakes. A third was straightforward grilled steak with queso fresco, which was buried in the other tacos, too. All of these had good enough flavor to draw me back when I'm not in the mood to drive out to Buford Highway.

But the Yelpers are correct to note inconsistency in the food. Why is the lamb good and the mole so bizarrely salty? Why did the salsa served with chips have an addicting flavor of smoked chilies our first visit and taste like watery tomato sauce the next? Why was a dish of queso with jalapeños thick and creamy, and the guac turned into an over-seasoned puree?

The owner, like most of the staff, is super-friendly and he obviously wants his food to make a good impression, but until he resolves the inconsistencies – or gets a liquor license! – dining here will be a gamble.

Back to Repast

Meanwhile, we had one of the best meals I've eaten in months on a recent Saturday night at Repast (620 N. Glen Iris Drive, 404-870-8707). Everything about this restaurant – from its intimate but sleek ambiance to its complex cuisine – outclasses the glut of celebrity-name restaurants that have opened here recently. Chef/owners Joe Truex and Mihoko Obunai are marking their restaurant's third anniversary.

I started with pork belly grattons – picture gourmet "cracklins" – served with Dijon mustard and a little salad featuring local radishes whose thin slices managed to carry a blast of piquancy. The grattons were crispy, meaty, chewy, fatty. Pure guilt.

Wayne started with chopped "tuna and beet tartare" mixed with daikon, Asian pears, tofu and avocado with a wasabi tobiko sauce. The textures and flavors ranged from fruity and earthy to aquatic.

I ordered a ragu of Jameson Farms lamb over hand-cut pappardelle for my entree. Interestingly, the pasta and ragu were separated on the plate, with a small mound of creamy chevre on one side. This provides a means for the diner to mix the ingredients to his own liking – and I enjoyed being able to eat some of the silky pasta without heavy sauce.

The sauce itself was full of capers, a few kalamatas and the fruity surprise of sultanas. I could have eaten twice the portion.

Wayne ordered the daily macrobiotic special. I have never been fond of this style of meatless cooking. My early experiences of it – and they were many, because it was very trendy in the '80s – were of relentless blandness.

But in our time of local and organic produce, that's not the case. Chef Obunai produced a bowl that was radiant with flavor, from an intense mushroom broth to Brussels sprouts and seaweed. It's a large portion. Wayne was spooning it long after I finished the lamb ragu.

We ordered a tasting of four desserts by pastry chef Noriyuki "TJ" Tajima. Like all the other food here, the desserts featured one surprise after another. I won't give them away.

The restaurant is planning a special Valentine's Day menu. Call for details or consult the website, www.repastrestaurant.com.

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