Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Eslava's Grill - Jackson

It’s no secret that I love pho. Skimming through the archives of this site reveals that a fair amount of my Atlanta posts have centered on the various pho outlets of Buford Highway, but Jackson has a much more limited selection. As a result, about once a week, I’ll make the lunch time trek from downtown to Saigon on Lakeland Drive for helping of pho dac biet with plenty of sriracha and fish sauce. However there is more to Lakeland than Phong’s pho. In the past, I have written about Table 100, Fusion, and Grant’s Kitchen, but one restaurant that I’ve been missing is Eslava’s Grille. Although I never tried Danny Eslava’s food when he was at AJ’s, over the past few months I’ve had a taste of what Chef Eslava can produce when his name is the one on the door.

As with many things in Jackson, my first meal at Eslava’s began with comeback dressing.
However, Eslava’s comeback is miles away from your standard Greek restaurant comeback.
Each forkful of dressing topped lettuce was heavily seasoned and packed with cumin and the floral spiciness of peppercorns.

With the arrival of the crab cake appetizer, it became apparent that almost every dish at Eslava’s would feature a cream or mayo based sauce.
Mango salsa is a rare beast in the Jackson area but it works well with these crabcakes.
These were a compact pair.
Densely packed, there was a moderate amount of binder but not enough to infringe on the sweetness of the crab meat.
While the creamy sauce worked beautifully with the crab cakes, the mango salsa was a different animal. Sweet at first, it, like every dish component I would encounter, would begin to build an additional layer of spiciness on my tongue with each bite. These crab cakes may not have been the finest lump crabmeat, but combination of the crab, the bright fruity flavors of the mango salsa, and the creamy sauce overcame any real shortcomings.

Much to my family’s chagrin, I have never truly warmed to the idea of cream sauce with pasta. I’ll cook it if asked but it’s rarely my choice at a restaurant. With his crawfish pasta, Chef Eslava makes a fair case for me to reconsider my position.
Actually, allow me to be more succinct. The crawfish and cream sauce are worth the consideration, the pasta is overcooked and completely forgettable.
From the start, they are not shy about piling on the tails. Looking like half a pound of tailmeat if it was an ounce, these crawfish were sweet and just a bit briny while the sauce is more of that unique Eslava flavor. With a creamy texture on the tongue and an initial nuttiness that was remarkably similar to Thai satay sauce, this sauce kept building more of that background spiciness with each bite.

Despite how much I had enjoyed my first visit to Eslava’s Grille, it quickly slipped into the background of Lakeland Drive. It wasn’t until more than six months later that I decided I should head back to see if things were still up to par. This time things began with a few fried oysters.
There is little doubt that Eslava errs on the side of undercooking his oysters.
Coated in a thin, cumin scented cornmeal shell and barely fried, these fat, gulf oysters were quite juicy but their crust was oily on the bottom and fell off at the slightest touch. Oddly, this was of the few dishes at Eslava’s where the sauce was not complimentary as it completely destroyed the cornmeal crust and obscured the brininess of the oysters.

Hoping to find a dish that didn’t involve cream, the blackened tilapia seemed like a fair bet.
What arrived at my table was a large tilapia filet blanketed in a rainbow of tan, browned, and blackened spices.
Initially the fish didn’t have an overpowering blackened flavor, but as is the case with most Eslava dishes, this clean flavor was quickly joined by a wave of peppercorns and the spice of chilies.
For the most part this tilapia was tender and quite juicy but the most sublime bites were the crispy edges where the crunch of the fish was joined by the full flavor of the blackening seasonings.

Typically a side of potatoes isn’t worth mentioning but there was something captivating about the potatoes that accompanied this blackened filet.
Just a bit salty, the contrast of crispy edges and a creamy interior was a nice foil to the forward spices and textures of the fish.

Drastically reducing my reaction time, a third visit to Eslava’s came just a week later and began with a unique interpretation of spinach and artichoke dip.
In most restaurants, artichoke dip is a quivering mass of cream and cheese, but Eslava’s version stands out as the artichokes and spinach actually had a discernable texture.
Supposedly there was crawfish in this dip, but I certainly couldn’t find them.
I’m not quite sure why the bread was only toasted on one side but a more pressing issue was the texture of the dip. Either a grainy texture to the cheese or some uncooperative breadcrumbs, the mouth feel of this dip kept me from enjoying what could have been one of the better spinach and artichoke dips that I’ve found.

At this point, it seemed that every dish had featured seafood but I decided to change that and see how Eslava would handle the potential pitfalls of the pork tenderloin.
Once again, Eslava was not shy with the crawfish.
Much like chicken breast, pork tenderloin has a tendency to dry out easily but these medallions were quite juicy and brimming with that familiar but unique flavor.
This time the crawfish in the sauce were certainly overcooked and bit chewy but they brought an element of sweetness that was complimented by the growing chili heat of the sauce.
The simple, initial flavor of the pork was quickly joined by that elusive flavor.
Already full from the artichoke dip, I spent most of the meal trying to discern the components of the sauce.

Aside from the base flavor of cumin, the sauce was a bit salty, slightly sweet with a faint chili heat in the background. With thoughts of mojo bouncing around in my head, I asked the waitress for guidance and she responded that Danny Eslava says it’s all a secret. Mildly frustrating, I suppose there is a certain charm for a restaurateur to have a secret to his success. However, Eslava doesn’t rely on a secret ingredient for his menu, by and large this is seafood that is well seasoned and well prepared. There were a few stumbles along the way but Eslava’s Grille is a nice alternative to pho and fish sauce.

Eslava’s Grille Address & Information
Eslava's Grille on Urbanspoon

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