Latin-Southern fusion at Atlanta’s Madre + Mason doesn’t always add up

Located at the end of Dutch Valley Road, a quiet side street that runs into Piedmont Park, is Madre + Mason.

The restaurant and bar wrap around the ground level of a condo building, including a shady, green patio strung with lights. On a summer evening, it is a nice place to catch a breeze. Order a spicy margarita and you’ll get a cold mason jar filled to the top with a jalapeno-spiked concoction that’s pleasantly hot and sweet.

In the kitchen, you no doubt will find Calavino Donati, a chef whose reputation in Atlanta began with Roman Lily Cafe in the Old Fourth Ward. When Donati opened that restaurant in 1997, the neighborhood had few other dining options. Donati won over a crowd there that has dutifully followed her ever since Roman Lily closed in 2007.

Her ventures have been more sporadic since, including a long run with Urban Cannibals in East Atlanta Village. Donati and her partner, singer-songwriter Doria Roberts, now own several businesses, including Tipple + Rose tea parlor and the latest version of Urban Cannibals in Midtown.

Madre + Mason is pitched as a kind of fusion of Latin and Southern cuisines. As such, the menu begins with familiar, but slightly tweaked nibbles from each tradition. There is a chipotle-flecked version of pimento cheese and toast points, a fine little bowl of guacamole spiked with cumin, and deviled eggs seasoned with ancho pepper. In place of fried green tomatoes, Donati cooks fried tomatillos, the green tomato of Latin cuisine.

Tacos are loaded with familiar ingredients, including carnitas and mole chicken, but also range toward the unusual, like a Brussels sprouts and fig combo. Each is topped with a cabbage slaw and hefty crumble of cojita cheese.

Larger plates range from a vegan-friendly dish of fried eggplant and dirty rice to a lamb burger to fried chicken. Longtime fans of Donati surely will recognize the turkey poblano meatloaf dressed with the jalapeno-tequila gravy for which she long has been known.

Reputations aside, I’ve found Madre + Mason a fine place for the basics. That spicy margarita goes just fine with a plate of guacamole and chips or pimento cheese and toast. On a recent summer weeknight evening, sitting out on the patio, our server both took our order and made our drinks. It was a little slow, but charming, the kind of experience you want at a neighborhood watering hole.

The tacos are alright as well. The twice-cooked carnitas are cut into odd, crisp cubes, which can make them a little unusual to handle. Take a bite, though, and those strips fall into the tender, porky strings that carnitas tend to summon. The mole chicken taco is a fine rendition, as well.

At times during my meals, though, I sensed that Madre + Mason is subject to one of those classic troubles with fusion cuisine. Namely, if you try to combine two authentic, time-tested cuisines, you risk being neither.

It is an odd equation. Instead of one plus one equals two, it sometimes looks like one minus one equals zero.

I looked for the bright, searing heat and citrus of Latin cuisine and did not find it. The overindulgent porky attitude of New Southern cooking isn’t quite there, either. The fried tomatillos, for example, are fine, but they achieve neither the charm of a classic, crisp fried green tomato nor the loud flavor of a bright, spicy salsa verde.

I arrived in Atlanta too late to get a taste of Donati’s work at Roman Lily Cafe, but I have tasted and enjoyed Donati’s food over the years since, in various locations. Rather than Southern or Latin food, I’ve often noted that Donati puts a particular emphasis on the vegetarian or vegan options on the menu. This remains true at Madre + Mason, where the vegetarian options are among the most satisfying items.

These are not the kind of trendy vegetarian options that I see a lot of these days, like grain bowls or plates of precious local vegetables. A plate of fried eggplant and chipotle salsa, loaded with a pile of dirty rice and seared Brussels sprouts, was rich and satisfying, almost like a vegan eggplant parm. I wished the dirty rice had a bit more flavor, but it’s the exact kind of plate of vegetarian comfort food that I imagine could go just right with a night of drinking with friends.

The Brussels sprouts and fig taco worked much better than expected, too. To be honest, the idea sounded straight-up unappealing, but I found the savory vegetal flavors paired well with the light sweetness of dried fig, the texture appealingly hearty.

Probably my favorite fusion dish at Madre + Mason was the chickpea escabeche, an arugula salad topped with a heavy load of chickpeas, red peppers and olives in a bright, acidic marinade. Rounded out with a boiled egg and a mojo-esque vinaigrette, this was something new. The marinade, typically something you’d see paired with seafood in Latin cuisines, made that humble, vegetarian-friendly chickpea into a pleasure. I’ll raise my margarita glass to that.

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