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Latin Quarter

By Scott Joseph
Sentinel Restaurant Critic

November 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001
ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

Next up on the list of restaurants at Universal Studios CityWalk is Latin Quarter. No, the theme isn't starving artists on the Left Bank in Paris. As a matter of fact, there isn't really a theme at all.

Latin Quarter is meant to be a celebration of the cultural heritage of the 21 nations that comprise Latin America. What a rich vein to mine with the colorful cultures, electrifying music and dazzling cuisine from such countries as Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala and Brazil.

That Latin Quarter chooses to leave much of that bounty untapped is a little odd, though I must tell you I liked LQ quite a bit. But why, for heaven's sake, when Latin music is one of the hottest things going would the live musician on LQ's stage play such songs as "New York, New York" and "Going Out of My Head," although I suppose that last one could be taken as a WASP-y equivalent to "Living La Vida Loca."

And the menu at Latin Quarter does not feature traditional preparations of classics, but rather something it calls "nuevo Latino," or new Latin cuisine. Like the "new world" or Floribbean cuisine out of South Florida, nuevo Latino takes the ingredients and flavors of traditional dishes and puts a creative spin on them.

The results are muy deliciosa. The food is inventive without going too far over the top. And it's presented in a classy style that stops short of being inappropriate or out of place.

My favorite among the entrees was the churrasco a la parrilla ($13.95). It featured a grilled skirt steak on top of a bed of garbanzo beans sauteed with ham and chorizo sausage -- meat on meat, my favorite. The flavors were enhanced by a brilliant chimichurri sauce, a condiment staple of Argentina made with olive oil, vinegar, chopped parsely and other herbs. This dish was also special in its presentation. The long, narrow skirt steak was rolled lengthwise and secured with toothpicks, then presented on end on top of the beans. Very stylish.

I also liked the lomo de puerco asado ($13.95), a roast pork loin marinated in sour orange juice and cilantro. The pork was tender and had just a slight vinegar tang. The meat was served on a mound of mashed boniato flavored with roasted garlic and surrounded by black beans.

From the seafood list, I sampled the corvina ($14.95), a mild-tasting sea trout common in Latin American countries. The delicate fillet was baked in a banana leaf and flavored with wine, cilantro and garlic. The taste was appropriately mild.

Tuna a la cana de azucar ($17.95) featured a tuna steak flavored with sugar cane. It was rather unexciting on the palate, and the fact that it was overcooked didn't help either.

Among the appetizers the fried plantains layered with crabmeat ($7.95) was a favorite. The plantains were formed into small, round tortillalike wafers with the crabmeat scooped in between. The white wine and butter sauce that accompanied this tostone pie was a perfect accent to the richness of the crab.

Quesadilla de vegetales ($7.95), one of the few meatless offerings, featured flour tortillas stuffed with thickly sliced portobello mushrooms, bell peppers, corn, ancho chilies and cheese. The stuffings were ample, and the seasonings well-balanced.

Ceviche L.Q. ($6.95) had corvina and shrimp "cooked" in a marinade of lime and lemon juices, served with jalapenos, tomatoes and cilantro. Fairly dull as ceviche goes, and one of the smaller portions too.

Crepas rellenas ($5.95), though misnamed, were my favorite from the dessert list. Delicate crepes were folded and placed around a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Sliced bananas were arranged on top, not stuffed into the crepes as the word rellenas would dictate, and doused with a sauce of dark rum. Yum.

The flan de caramelo ($4.50) was good too, but the tarta de limon ($5.95), described on the menu as Key lime pie wasn't a pie at all, but rather a custard served in a sundae glass. Didn't work on any level.

Service was OK, but be warned that an automatic 17 percent is added to the bill. This does not stop the restaurant from leaving a space blank for an additional tip on the charge slip. They got me the first time, I caught it the second visit.

Latin Quarter is a two-story restaurant with the second level overlooking the dance floor and stage below. At least in theory -- my view of the stage was almost totally blocked by a huge Mayan totem. As I walked around the restaurant I noticed other tables had limited views as well.

The ceiling, speckled with fiber-optic "stars," rises from the Andes mountain backdrop on stage to a low point on the second level. This serves as a sounding board to raise the noise level many decibels. My ears were ringing for some time after I left.

As for the music, a band starts to play late evenings Wednesdays through Sundays, and the beat then is entirely Latin. There is also a cover charge at that time (anywere from $4 to $10), but it would be worth it to have the appropriate accompaniment for the delicious offerings from Latin Quarter's kitchen.

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