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A Menu Of Mixed Latin Delights Speaks Volumes For Gitano
March 28, 2003
Penelope Cruz sits on the stool next to me in the dark, sexy little bar of my new favorite hideaway, Madison Valley's Gitano (hee- tah-no). I order us Latin icebreakers - a rum-fired mojito, or caipirinha fueled by cachaca (kah-shah-sa), a Brazilian liquor distilled from sugar cane - or a Maricucas Sidecar or a blood- orange-tinted Gitano. We nibble novel chips: addictive, house-made daily from plantain, malanga and yucca, dipping them in a mango- tomato salsa that's all fruit, no fire (darn).
We share our first heavenly bocadito (small bite) - Vieyras Peruanas: divers scallops seared, then sauteed with tamarind butter, cachaca and Spanish chorizo and caramelized onions ($8). Then another arrives: Puerto Rican favorite pasteles combining masa and pork with raisins, figs and a tomato mojo sauce ($5). In that heart- melting little voice of hers, Cruz coos: "Oh, James, this is perfect. I feel so at home here ... with you."
Oh, sweet intoxication! At Gitano, if the drinks don't do it - if the date doesn't do it - the food surely will.
Maybe the date is fantasy (frankly, we're not that close). And sticklers might point out Cruz hails from Spain, not the Latin- and South America whence roams the fancy of former Cactus executive chef Maritza Texeira. But who wouldn't be smitten? From Puerto Rico ... Cuba ... Argentina ... authentic dishes and artful interpretations abound with both mo-ho and mo-jo, plates laden with plantain and baby banana; here chimichurri, there piri-piri. No russets; rather, Peruvian purple potatoes and malanga (large taro root) serving as mashers. Yucca "potato salad."
Gypsy - the Mediterranean former iteration of this eatery, also owned by Joel Berman and Amber Berman-Ortiv (longtime proprietors of Cater Arts) - lasted less than a year. Gitano also means gypsy, but its focus has wandered clear across the sea. The dining room still seats about 30, the bar 15. Wooden table tops and mismatched chairs now sit before walls hung with sensual art - tango dancers and languid ladies. The big, arched window still affords views of street life, including patrons heading for Rover's across the street. Marco Cassas Beaux helped with launching last fall, while also creating the Buenos Aires Grill, where he now focuses his energies.
Those bocaditos certainly commenced both our visits auspiciously. A mussel-clam combo featured a seductive garlic cream sauce heady with anisette and cumin, with delightful dippers of fried crisp mashed plantain patties called tostones. ($8). Wild Ecuadorian Prawn Ceviche lived up to its descriptor ($7). Carrucho ($7), a kind of fruity cocktail with red onion and cilantro, was filled with cut-up conch, which could just as well have been calamari.
Salads gain Latin identity, one with popped amaranth - (Ensalada de Aguacate Ahumado, $6), the Ensalada de la Casa with grilled pineapple and green papaya ($6), the Ensalada de Loroco, a mixed green affair with Latin cheeses, roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and pickled loroco flowers, seed pods mostly tasting pickly. Some might stop simply with the Asopao de Mariscos ($5/$9), a thick rice/ seafood soup,
One page of the menu serves as glossary for the many Spanish terms, though about half the words I tried to look up weren't there. How about a table dictionary or a Spanish-speaking movie star ...
On to entradas. First, a couple choices I would not repeat: a whole trout fillet, deep-fried (Pescado Frito, $15), is an interesting thing, especially for the eat-with-your-fingers bunch, though for flavor it would be lost without a fruit chutney. This would be better as a warm-weather dish, with its side of yucca escabeche shockingly cold.
The chef turns a traditional Cuban dish - white rice with black beans - on its head, using white beans and dense, dull black rice ($12). Sweet plantains helped redeem this yawning nod to vegetarians - dominant flavors derived from a pair of over-easy eggs. Meat eaters can add chorizo, but the flavorful halved links are jaw challenging, jerkylike.
Once a slow-roasted lamb shank's tough surface layers finally yielded to the knife, it gave way to a hefty cargo of silken meat mated with shallots and figs and a balsamic-flavored sauce ($23). The richly marinated chicken breast presented no moisture challenge in the brightly flavored Pollo en Chimichurri ($14).
Another vegetarian entree, Funche de Coco ($14), was among the most interesting and pleasing. Blue corn combined with coconut forms a soft "cake," sided by winter greens, sauteed baby bananas and a rich savory pumpkin flan. A grilled 16-ounce rib eye (Bife del Gaucho, $24) gets a treatment of Malbec wine reduction and a finish of blue cheeselike cabrales butter, accompanied by slightly sweet malanga mashers. Chef Texeira's Puerto Rican Lomo de Cerdo ($16), smoked pork tenderloin with mojo, shows her native Puerto Rican pride.
Among the handful of desserts, we doted on Platanos Dulce, sweet plantains treated with rum and brown sugar ($5.95), and the Piquant Flourless Chocolate Cake ($6.95), molten, with caramelized baby bananas and spiked with piri-piri, not the sauce, but rather that hot little Spanish pepper.
GITANO PHONE: 206-709-8324
ADDRESS: 2805 E. Madison St.
PRICES: Appetizers; soups and salads $5-$9; entrees $12-$24; desserts $4.95-$6.95
HOURS: 5-9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 5-10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday
BAR: Full bar
SMOKING: No smoking
PAYMENT: MasterCard; Visa; no checks
SOUND: Raise voices three notches at peak hours
ACCESS: No barriers
PARKING: Street parking
BEST BETS: Vieyras Peruanas; $8; Almejas & Mejillones; $8; Asopao de Mariscos; $5-$9; Lomo de Cerdo; $16; Funche de Coco; $14; Platanos Dulce; $5.95
RATINGS: Food: * * * Service: * * Ambiance: * *