REVIEW: El Valle brings sophisticated Mexican cuisine to Midtown

Impressive knife skills make the halibut ceviche one of the most beautiful dishes at El Valle. Courtesy of Karen Calver

Credit: Karen Calver

Combined ShapeCaption
Impressive knife skills make the halibut ceviche one of the most beautiful dishes at El Valle. Courtesy of Karen Calver

Credit: Karen Calver

When it comes to authentic Mexican food, Midtown’s El Valle likely is closer to the real deal than your neighborhood lunch combo spot. The sleek, stylish restaurant would be right at home in Mexico City, one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan metropolises in North America.

In fact, El Valle’s cocktail menu was developed with the help of Allen Suarez of Mexico City’s Hanky Panky, ranked No. 12 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list last year.

Executive Chef Luis Damian, one of the partners, noted that the restaurant’s emphasis on Mexico extends to importing wines from there, and even El Valle’s beautiful, understated stoneware comes from Oaxaca-based La Chicharra Céramica.

That level of ambition and attention to detail invites a higher level of scrutiny, and, while there’s much to like about El Valle, the dinner menu too often is heavy.

Sopes de carnitas featured hunks of pork belly glistening atop pillowy, house-made fried masa patties. Rich Oaxacan cheese oozed from the sincronizada de pulpo, an octopus quesadilla. Even the herb guacamole featured a dense snowcap of queso fresco, hardly showing any green.

Nearly every dish would have been a nice indulgence on its own, but, when the parade of rich food had ended, we found ourselves wishing for more spicy, citrusy excitement.

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El Valle's sopes de carnitas feature pork belly piled on top of sopes made by chef Executive Chef Luis Damian's mother. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

El Valle's sopes de carnitas feature pork belly piled on top of sopes made by chef Executive Chef Luis Damian's mother. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Combined ShapeCaption
El Valle's sopes de carnitas feature pork belly piled on top of sopes made by chef Executive Chef Luis Damian's mother. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

The stellar scallops with chorizo risotto stood out. The shellfish were perfectly seared, while the creamy risotto kept the spicy chorizo in check. That’s an entree worth a special trip.

The halibut ceviche also was a good choice. A strong kick of citrus provided much-needed acidity, and impressive knife skills made it one of the menu’s most beautiful offerings.

The dish that disappointed, because of its lack of heft, was the $55 chuleton al tamarindo, a 14-ounce wet-aged rib-eye. The steak, while bursting with flavor from its tamarind marinade, hit the table with a whimper. Often served in 20-ounce cuts or larger, Damian said the smaller cut was a deliberate choice to allow diners to enjoy the steak as part of a larger meal.

The figgy sticky toffee pudding, on the other hand, proved completely irresistible, despite its richness. Desserts are made by Damian’s wife, Faye Jonah, who also owns Cirque Confections and Chocolate. Her pudding is one of the few departures from authentic Mexican cuisine on the menu, but all questions and critiques are swept away by the tide of whiskey butter sauce.

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The British-style figgy sticky toffee pudding at El Valle isn't authentic Mexican cuisine, but it's so good you won't care where it's from. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

The British-style figgy sticky toffee pudding at El Valle isn't authentic Mexican cuisine, but it's so good you won't care where it's from. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Combined ShapeCaption
The British-style figgy sticky toffee pudding at El Valle isn't authentic Mexican cuisine, but it's so good you won't care where it's from. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

If dinner was like a dirge — sometimes beautiful, despite its heaviness — brunch was closer to mariachi music: exciting and vibrant.

Sopes de camaron featured dressed shrimp with pickled cactus, chipotle sauce, fried eggs and avocado mousse on top of those heavenly sopes, which are made fresh by Damian’s mother. Pescado sarandeado placed blackened salmon, encrusted with lively spices, on poblano grits, with a smoked tomato sauce you’d drink if they served it in a cup. Avocado toast lovers will appreciate the attention lavished on the pan con aguacate, another amazing display of knifework.

The cocktail list was as exciting as brunch, thanks to bar manager Miguel Chavez, who has built on Suarez’s contributions from Mexico City.

With mezcal as its base, the Labios Rotos tamed the smoky spirit with a double dose of orange liqueur and orange juice, then added complexity and visual interest with a red wine float at its top. The Amores Lejanos was a welcome riff on the now-common espresso martini, bringing the fire of mezcal and sweet spices of Licor 43 to the party. At brunch, El Valle’s michelada showed confidence and restraint, using high-quality ingredients in an impeccable example of the traditional beer cocktail made with tomato juice and citrus.

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Tender, sweet scallops at El Valle are bolstered by creamy risotto infused with chorizo. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Tender, sweet scallops at El Valle are bolstered by creamy risotto infused with chorizo. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Combined ShapeCaption
Tender, sweet scallops at El Valle are bolstered by creamy risotto infused with chorizo. Henri Hollis/henri.hollis@ajc.com

Credit: Henri Hollis

Credit: Henri Hollis

El Valle does nearly everything well, but, sitting on the patio at sunset, it was hard not to feel gluttonous while Midtown residents bounced by on evening jogs. Also, despite so much attention to detail, the dinner menu could use a little more spice, and maybe a squeeze of lime.

EL VALLE

Food: modern, upscale Mexican

Service: friendly, professional and conversational

Best dishes: seared scallops with chorizo risotto, shrimp sopes with fried egg, figgy sticky toffee pudding

Vegetarian selections: several options marked on the menu, including vegan cauliflower tacos, but no vegetarian entrees

Alcohol: full wine list, including unusual imports from Mexico, along with a lengthy cocktail list

Price range: $$$$

Credit cards: all major cards accepted

Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Mondays-Thursdays, 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Sundays

Children: not recommended

Parking: lot parking behind building; validated at the host stand

MARTA station: located between Midtown and North Avenue MARTA stations

Reservations: yes

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: manageable inside, but lots of traffic noise on the patio

Takeout: no

Address, phone: 800 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 678-974-5356

Website: valleatl.com

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