Hot Plate

New Menu Blues
There are new menus and New Menus. At Americas, where Nicaraguan-born Michael Cordua has experimented so deftly and originally with flavors from up and down the Western Hemisphere, revisions in the lineup fall into the latter category. When the chef who earned his striking, Jordan-Mozer designed establishment Esquire magazine's 1994 New Restaurant of the Year title comes up with new dishes, it behooves the foodophile to pay attention.

Which makes the strangenesses encountered on Cordua's recently revamped document particularly disappointing. How to explain a boneless duck taco -- Pato Chino-Latino, if you please -- that lies dry and listless upon its fragile flour tortilla, its sweetish sauce lending no real assistance? Or a desert-dry tuna napoleon in the modish vertical style, its parchment-like rectangles of crisped potato perched atop small tuna rounds swathed in overwhelming strips of bacon? It's all structure, no sense; a surrounding field of greens in vinaigrette seems oddly detached from the proceedings.

Also new -- and worthy of Cordua's reputation -- is an elegant, clear oxtail consomme with diced vegetables and a peppered-sherry zing. But a fancy salad crowned with a miniature Stonehenge of vertical croutons benefits more from its exuberant dose of Cabrales cheese than from stodgy, earthbound rings of deep-fried onion and green pepper.

Tortellini stuffed with soft, stringy queso fresco sound great, but their sauce of cream gigged with hard, grated Rancal goat cheese is too rich by half; and a central mound of duck confit compounds the problem without enhancing the whole. In a different context, these tortellini could be compelling.

Same goes for the salmon encamisado in a crushed-plantain crust. On its own, the fish works superbly well with a graceful, slightly chile-hot black bean sauce; why let a layer of fried stuff come between those two natural allies? If Cordua has a weakness, it is that his fertile imagination sometimes works overtime -- even in situations where less might be more.

Disappointments or no, Americas is still highly festive even on a weeknight, packed with noisy merrymakers eating the Cordua classics -- which can be as fine as ever. Startled by my experience with the new stuff, I returned a week later and found the char-grilled lamb meatballs with white-cornmeal arepas as impeccable as ever; the grilled tuna over julienne peppers with ethereal quesadillas still miraculous; and the lamb churrasco with mint-spiked pico de gallo one of the best pieces of meat in town. No arguing with the voluptuous tres leches dessert, either; or the landmark coconut ice cream; or the sophisticated, corn-studded cheesecake.

I worry about the service, though. On one visit, our waiter seemed spread too thin; we had to ask for a wine bucket, for various utensils, even for a dessert menu (perhaps anxious to turn our table, he had already presented us with our check). Success has its pitfalls; I can only hope the Cordua brothers manage to escape them.

-- Alison Cook

Americas, 1800 Post Oak Boulevard, 961-1492.


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