Restaurant Reviews

Latina Nueva

Yes, I admit it, I'm gullible, but when a restaurant calls itself Amazon 2050 A.D., I expect rain forest, chattering monkeys, tree frogs, brilliantly colored butterflies and, at the very least, a macaw or two. Am I being overly literal here? Probably. But a name like that, you will admit, does raise expectations -- expectations that this restaurant doesn't always meet. I liked the food at Amazon 2050, and the staff is very nice -- Hi, Steve -- but as far as evoking the rain forest is concerned, it does so no more successfully than Dickens on the Strand evokes Victorian England.

Amazon doesn't entirely disregard its namesake. A carpet gives the appearance of being strewn with dead leaves, there are a number of potted plants -- none, as it happens, looking very healthy -- the booths sport mock tiger skins, and adorning the walls are pictures of toucans and caimans and other creatures whose habitat is the Amazon basin. (There are also creatures whose habitat it isn't: gorillas, for example, and hippos, both native to Africa. At times, Amazon's grasp of geography seems a little tenuous.)

Amazon's interior is a letdown because the outside is whimsical enough to suggest great things within. Seen from the street, it looks like a cheesy temple -- the sort the Mayans might have built had they lacked, not just their phenomenal engineering skills, but their sense of proportion as well. It's really quite endearing. The snake looming over the front door -- my companion dismissed it as "an ugly lizard thing" -- is also charming, not the least because he'd like you to believe that only torpor prevents him from engorging you whole. To the right of the entrance, there is a totem pole that is, I would guess, Fijian, if it's anything at all. Amazon casts a wide cultural net. South America, the civilizations of the Yucatan, the woods carvers of Melanesia -- all and everything are grist to its mill.

What 2050 A.D. means I have no idea, unless proprietor Dale Peters, an ardent conservationist, is suggesting that half a century from now, this is what the Amazon will look like -- the world's largest rain forest reduced to a tawdry relic. Who knows? He may yet prove prophetic.

Amazon's kitchen turns out a version of nueva Latina in which the "Latina" is unmistakable -- lots of jicama, mango, guacamole, cilantro, jalapenos, lime and tortilla -- and the "nueva" a little more elusive. This menu establishes no high-water mark for originality, but overall, I was pleased by what I ate here. True, several dishes came to the table under-seasoned and overcooked, but this I put down to inexperience. Amazon, open just six weeks, remains for now something of a fledgling.

In all, we sampled four appetizers, two of which I recommend unreservedly. The seafood empanadas ($7.95) are terrific: pastry pockets filled with snapper, crabmeat and shrimp and served with a nicely acerbic mango sauce. The chicken soup with egg flower ($3.75) is even better. The kitchen pulled a fast one here: Instead of under-seasoning, this time it over-seasoned, but so delicate was the broth, it didn't seem to matter. The accompanying bread-and-cheese dumplings were wonderful, too. Grilled till crisp, they float on the soup like lily pads.

I quite liked the avocado Neptune ($10.95) -- avocado stuffed with crabmeat and garnished with carrots and jicama. There were lots of other things as well -- rather too much, I thought: asparagus and lemon and something called aurora sauce, which I didn't like at all. Though nicely named, it's something of a hodgepodge: shrimp stock and white wine and mayonnaise. Not a happy marriage. A trial separation might be in order.

The papaya-chicken-walnut salad ($8.50) doesn't work, either. Consisting of an unremarkable chicken salad served in a perfectly ordinary papaya half, it lacked synergy. For reasons I can't explain, the two elements didn't interact. Like wary strangers, they gazed suspiciously at one another from a distance.

The restaurant offers four fish entrees -- three of them red snapper. We tried two: baked snapper and snapper excelsior (both $14.95). The excelsior proved the better: The fish is sauteed with mushrooms and artichokes and finished with a lemon/white wine sauce. As a bonus, it comes with potato puffs -- eggs, flour, butter and pureed potato molded into balls and deep-fried. They're quite wonderful.

The baked snapper was less satisfying because the kitchen erred on the side of caution and left it in the oven longer than was necessary. But it had its merits. The snapper, obviously fresh, was cooked in "potato paper" -- potatoes, sliced paper-thin, which are then blanched and wrapped around the fish. Also on the plate were slices of squash and carrot that had been brushed with ginger and oyster sauce and grilled. The vegetables are served sandwiched between strips of sugar cane.

Also fairly decent were the spinach and crabmeat enchiladas ($9.95) topped with Chihuahua cheese. They came in flour, rather than the more conventional corn tortillas, and tasted gummy. Thank heavens for the accompanying poblano-cilantro sauce. Faster than a speeding bullet, it put all that gumminess to flight.

The only real disappointment was the chicken Maya ($10.95) -- breast meat marinated in grapefruit and achiote and baked in a banana leaf. It proved unpleasantly dry. Either it was sentenced to hard labor in the oven, or the grapefruit had been too zealous and made the meat overly tough. The accompanying yucca was nothing to write home about, either. Yucca is currently enjoying its 15 minutes of fame, and I don't for a moment begrudge it the spotlight. But it is, let's face it, an insipid vegetable. I'll be glad when its celebrity wanes.

Amazon 2050 A.D., 3745 Greenbriar, 522-3837.

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Eric Lawlor