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God knows, I wanted to like Ruggles Bistro Latino. The promise of a swanky downtown location, hot music and sexy Latin food pegs my personal Swoon-o-Meter. Instead, ten minutes into my first visit, I could have wept, though I doubt I'd have been heard over the throbbing Ricky Martin soundtrack.
Owners John and Darryl Hamilton brought in Ruggles impresario Bruce Molzan to reopen the space at 711 Main where Staccato's so abruptly closed this summer. The redecoration effort was simple and perhaps hurried: Scrub some fashionably distressed paint on the walls in fluorescent tones of orange and yellow, then hang a couple of cartoonish paintings of Spanish señoritas. Voil$agrave;! Instant Latino cafe.
The evening ambience strategy is to turn the lights down low. I mean, way, way low, dark as a coal mine. Night dining at Bistro Latino is an almost comical exercise in the blind leading the blind: Patrons are challenged to read the menu or identify food on the plates; waitstaffers use tiny flashlights to search for bottles of wine in the tall, dark cubbyholes next to Staccato's abandoned pizza oven. You think I'm kidding? I watched a man at the table next to mine one evening holding his menu outstretched at arm's length, panning it back and forth in a vain attempt to catch a ray of light from the tiny fixtures suspended from the ceiling. Sure, each table has a teacup-size oil-burning lamp, but its flame is as insignificant as a birthday candle.
The darkness compounds the difficulty of deciphering the bilingual menu. Each dish is painstakingly described in both Spanish and English, but the Spanish is a strangely stilted compilation of mixed dialects and awkward translations. " 'Bife al estilo de New York'?" a friend from Mexico read aloud in disbelief. " 'Pasta de cabellos de angel?' I thought this was supposed to be Latin food."
The waitstaff often seems as baffled as the diners. We felt around in the wire breadbasket to discover tiny white biscuits, smooth ovals nestled in a napkin like quail eggs. "I'm pretty sure that's yuca bread," said our waitress. "But I don't know what that green stuff is with it." We groped across the tabletop to locate the small dish of "green stuff," which turned out to be a rubbery quarter-inch-deep serving of jalapeño jelly. Forget the jelly. The biscuits are good on their own, a thin, flaky layer of dough surrounding a soft core of queso fresco; they fit comfortingly in the palm like warm worry stones.
And I went crazy over the coconut shrimp appetizer, although I grant you $9.75 is a lot to pay for three jumbo shrimp. But what gorgeous shrimp these are, coated in bristly golden jackets of fresh coconut shreds, aswim in an irresistible red curry sauce. (Just ignore the "mango mojo" in its little cup, more mashed mango than mojo.)
Other appetizers proved less appetizing. I was intrigued by the notion of a "seared" soft-shell crab ($14.95), one night's special appetizer, but was disappointed to find it battered and fried in a rather ordinary way. What's more, the poor little crab was presented with a bizarre touch: It was buried under a dry haystack of crunchy, curly noodles, the sort that accompany Chinese carryout by the bag-load. Excavating beneath the noodles, I found absolutely plain steamed pea pods and white chunks of jicama. That's it? I wondered. That's all?
Back on the regular menu, I was fonder of the appetizer quesadillas, which are thickly swaddled in potato dough rather than flour tortillas and almost worth the $11.50 for four fat quarters. I couldn't find the crabmeat as advertised, but the cheese filling was soft and plentiful, swathed with a mild, grainy sauce of chipotle and cilantro. I only wished they'd been served hotter, so that the cheese didn't set so quickly into a rubbery mass. (It's a puzzling quirk of Bistro Latino dinners that the plates themselves are red-hot to the touch, but the food on them is barely lukewarm.)
Three bites into our appetizers that first night, our waitress plonked down the soups. We must have looked at her crossly, because she hastened to assure us, "Oh, don't worry. Those soups will probably stay warm for a while." They didn't, of course. Ordinarily I'd put this minor goof down to one staffer's inexperience, but premature serving seems to consistently blight the entire room. At another nearby table, a gentleman and his waiter engaged in a two-fisted tug-of-war, the man trying to hang on to his salad plate, the waiter determined to wrestle it from him in order to serve his steak. In the end, of course, the customer gave up his almost untouched salad; the waiter slapped down the steak and sped away with his prize.
Though both had cooled by the time we got to them, one of the soups was still very good. The roasted corn chowder ($4.95) sported a sprinkling of sweet corn kernels, bits of crabmeat and soft queso fresco, bobbing in a rich brown broth warmed by the smoky flavor of chipotles. Too bad the posole ($4.95) was such a crashing bore. Its watery chicken stock was thin and anemic, the token hominy kernels hopelessly outnumbered by shreds of boiled chicken, some of which I suppose could have been pork, but were indistinguishable in flavor. I'd hoped for radishes in the "fresh veggie" garnish, and maybe some queso fresco, too, but instead got raw carrots and red cabbage, neither of which contributed spark or interest to the bowl.
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.
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?