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Latin Con-Fusion

Ruggles goes downtown and down south, but when will Bruce Molzan's new eatery get its menu down?

The entrées taught us that a dim interior can be kind when the kitchen has something to hide. Take, for example, the dish described as potato-crusted sea bass, or rather, "Trucha de mar Chilena empanizada con papas, con camaron y salsa de mantequilla y vino blanco," offered at market price, which turned out to be $26.95. The plate arrived fortified with a vertical picket fence of fried plantain strips, more strips piled like pickup sticks across the top. "Let me show you where the fish is," offered the waitress, helpfully picking up a spare fork to shovel aside the plantains. "A lot of customers have trouble finding it." There was the fish, all right, but nary a crust or even a fleck of potato on it. The sea bass fillet was beautifully cooked, flaky and moist, but stark naked. Alongside was a distressingly cold and undercooked pile of roasted corn kernels and two Sequoia-size stalks of woody asparagus, too near raw to be any fun at all.

The paella "al estilo del Caribe" ($18.50) was another heartbreaker, a bland assemblage of seafood and white rice, sans vegetables or seasoning, and with only the faintest hint of yellow to represent the traditional saffron. This plate, too, was exuberantly skewered with fried plantain strips that slowly wilted as we ate around them, serving a useful function perhaps in absorbing excess moisture from the rice. Although the plate appeared to be generously heaped with seafood, that impression proved only skin-deep. I lifted the large fish fillet that covered half the platter and found only plain, wet, soupy rice beneath it; the few mussels and clams that were strategically placed round the perimeter were badly overcooked, sad, dry and tough.

After striking out on the vegetables that are considered a Ruggles trademark, I pinned my last hopes on the equally famous desserts. I love the double-layered crème brûlée cheesecake as much as ever, the bottom half a creamy white cheesecake, the top half a thick layer of fluffy chocolate fudge torch-warmed and delightfully gooey ($5.95). I wanted to love the moist, rich seven-layered "Domino" chocolate cake ($5.95), but had issues with its puddles of fruit sauce. Red raspberry puree, okay, but pink grapefruit sauce? With chocolate cake? Even the apricot sauce puddle was so tart that its juxtaposition with the sweet chocolate set my mouth into a hard, painful pucker, like drinking orange juice after brushing with Crest.

It must be a Latino cafe. Carmen Miranda's on
the wall.
Amy Spangler
It must be a Latino cafe. Carmen Miranda's on the wall.

Details

(713)227-9141.
711 Main Street.

At lunchtime we were better served at Bistro Latino, when there's less of that jerky, rush-then-wait service that prevails in the evenings. Our sweetly attentive waiter surprised us by apologizing for his unfamiliarity with the food, explaining that not only was it his first day at Bistro Latino, but he'd never waited tables before in his life. This, as he presented our $50 lunch tab for two, mind you.

But many entrées, such as the "churrassco steak with chimichuri sauce," will set you back less at lunch ($12.95) than they do at dinner ($22.95). It was just bad luck, I suppose, that my "rare" order came out at best "medium well," undisguised by the last-minute splash of bright green chimichurri sauce. We weren't much happier with the Cuban pork sandwich ($8.25). The mountain of thinly sliced pork turned out to be tediously dry, the pale, limp strips of bacon underdone, and the promising-sounding dipping sauce of guava and habanero as dully oversweet as bottled French dressing.

After several visits I still don't know what might be the underlying problem with Bistro Latino. The usual excuses simply won't do, not for a hugely experienced and highly praised restaurateur like Bruce Molzan, and not in a venue that has been open more than two months. Maybe three ambitious restaurants are simply too many for one entrepreneur, no matter how talented. Could training transform the pleasant but clueless waitstaffers into professionals? Is it lack of supervision that sends the kitchen spinning? The real question is, how long will customers stay tuned to find out?

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