by Suzanne Wright

When I moved to Atlanta from Washington, D.C. 10 years ago, there was not many restaurants worth braging about within walking distance of my Midtown condominium. What a difference a decade makes. The contemporary cobalt blue fountain emblazed with “Mitra” on Juniper Street heralds a great new restaurant within steps of my home (or valet distance if you drive). Mitra is the name of owner Sia Moshk’s wife, who also designed the appealing interiors. Moshk’s first restaurant, a gem called Sia’s in Duluth, was one of the few suburban spots worth the drive. Now, James Beard-selected, New Orleans-born chef Scott Serpas and Moshk, after honing their talents over the past five years in North Fulton, have opened their second venture in town. Chef de cuisine Gerardo Ramos, a Mexico native with 10 years of Atlanta restaurant experience, completes the culinary team, which executes a menu described as “creative American with Latin influences.” I’d describe it as delicious. Bouncy Latin music greets you as you enter.

The two-story building is a retrofit of an old home – urban chic infused with Mediterranean flair. The rubbed tangelo and persimmon walls pop with oversized “studies” of Botero’s voluptuous men and women. Walter Bilinski and Steve MacNeil of No Mas! Productions custom made the furniture, which includes granite-topped tables and springy, yet supportive, chairs upholstered in a swirly blood red and gold pattern. The exposed ceiling with its dark beams is handsome and the chandelier dubbed “medusa” is wrought iron with numerous, many-pointed opaque glass stars. Downstairs is a cozy bar and there’s a patio with iron hieroglyphic sculptures where it will be great fun to sip and nosh come spring. The effect is striking and warm.

It would have been easy for Moshk and Serpas to offer their celebrated menu from Sia’s; instead they’ve taken a wholly different approach. Although open just two weeks when we visited, it was hard to choose from the appealing starters. We settled on the quail, lamb tacos, ceviche and oysters. The menu, Serpas says, is still being tweaked and will change frequently based on diner feedback and his inspiration. We found all the appetizers especially tasty and stunningly presented on white plates. If asked to rank them, I’d give a blue ribbon to the plump, flash-fired, briny oysters in a whisper-light corn flour spiked with Anaheim garlic escabeche on top. My companion and I fought over the last one. A close second was the exquisitely flavored roasted lamb, served in crisp, finger-sized red tacos with an almond-raisin relish and a topping of cabrales, Spanish blue cheese. The scallop ceviche was delicate and the quail with its ragu of white beans, cranberries and wild mushrooms was earthy, perfect on a chilly night.

Anita LaRaia has pieced together a great wine and sprits list, including flights of red and white wine, a sherry flight and tequila tastings. We enjoyed the whites and reds, especially the Feudo Arancio Grillo and the El Portillo Merlot. Pairings are suggested in the menu or Matt, the bartender, can steer you. A word about the team service: from manager Mike to servers Christina, Emma and Andres, the staff is uniformly friendly and knowledgeable and genuinely interested in your feedback. A black napkin was proffered to keep lint at bay and a shared salad was separately plated. How refreshing, especially in a neighborhood where chi-chi attitude too often rules.

Our main courses continued on an upward trajectory. Thin slices of chimichurri skirt steak nestled on a whipped bed of cayenne maple sweet potatoes were perfectly cooked, tender and toothsome. The masa harina herb-roasted mahi-mahi with grilled vegetable mahon enchiladas was similarly well-executed, the fish juicy and flaky and tomatillo adding a bit of heat. Brown-sugar roasted chicken with oregano potatoes and wild mushroom hen jus was succulent. And here’s something noteworthy: not once did we see sides repeated; all were distinctive and conceived to flatter each dish.

My culinary Achilles heel is dessert. I am leery of restaurants that shirk the final course by opting for supplied sweets. I was thrilled to see pastry chef Ann Marie Kenney’s list of finales, which was similarly vexing to choose from (and hooray, there wasn’t a creme brulee in sight!). We opted for the cinnamon chocolate lava cake, coffee flan and roasted pear cranberry strudel. I adored the flan (which was more like a pot de creme served in a coffee cup) paired with a terrific cornmeal sugar cookie (I’d love a dozen to dunk in tea). My friend was romanced by the strudel – roasting brings out the natural sweetness of the fruits.

A glass of Don PX sherry is a lush accompaniment. It’s a bit unfair to visit a restaurant so early in its life, but we were consistently pleased with the food and service, finding no missteps and admiring every plate from start to finish. It’s heartening that in a still-struggling economy so many restaurateurs are opening such quality eateries at such fair prices (entrees top out at $21). Do them and yourselves a favor: go visit now. I know I’ll be beating a path from my door to Mitra’s.

Mitra is located at 818 Juniper Street, Atlanta, GA 30308. 404-875-5515.