Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Restaurant: Calle Ocho

Trips to the upper west side are not a common occurrences for me, particularly just to eat dinner. The menu, however, and a gift certificate burning a whole in my wallet convinced me to head to Calle Ocho to try the unusual twists on recognizable Latin flavors and dishes. The restaurant has a cozy and chic interior by the bar, where many people simply sat around sipping brightly colored drinks and checking out if anyone was checking them out. Once led into the main dining room, you walk out into a huge cavernous space with loud conversations and waiters running all around. You get the feeling like you walked into a slightly off fine dining restaurant that could be in Latin America, but could also be in California or Miami. This odd effect wears off quickly as soon as you get a chance to study the long drink and food menus.

My dining companion and I wanted to try as much food as possible, and both had 3 different drinks each. Of the 3, none really hit the spot for me like the classic Mojito. Every other drink I tried was just way too sweet and girly, with some even rimmed with sugar. Luckily the food distracted me from the drinks enough to forget how sweet they were. We started with a carnitas and pineapple soft taco platter and a combo of four ceviches. The carnitas were sweet and savory, which would be a common theme throughout the meal. The meat was completely shredded, moist and flavorful. Served with different salsas, pickled onions, radish and cilantro, each taco could be made the way the individual liked it and gobbled up in about two or three bites. The ceviche sampler was a mixed bag. Not all the ceviches we wanted could be a part of the sample (the oysters specifically), and another was mysteriously not available (despite it being early in the night). We ended up ordering the Mariscos, Tropical, and Hondureno. We ordered a fourth, but they mistakenly brought two Mariscos. The Hondureno was far and away the best, combining tuna, coconut milk and pickled jalapenos. The Mariscos, which had lobster, shrimp, lemon and lime were amazing, although as expected, you never get enough lobster in the order. Although the ingredients of the Tropical should have wowed me, the combo of shrimp, roast tomato, mango and other citrus was just overwhelming and instead of the tastes melding together, they just all fought each other.

For main courses we shared the Paella and the Corvina. The Paella was huge, and had no shortage of lobster, scallops or shrimp. In fact, it actually came with 1/2 a lobster sitting right on top. You can't really argue with any Paella that starts with 1/2 a lobster, and has just the right combo of spice and savory flavor to warm your stomach. The Corvina was basically a large piece of chilean seabass, mixed vegetables and a delightfully seasoned broth that was surprisingly flavorful. After just one or two bites I couldn't get enough the perfectly cooked fish and vegetables gently mingling in a sauce that to the average observer looked bland and unassuming. I couldn't pinpoint the flavors of the sauce given its Spanish background (and my lack of knowledge about the cuisine), but I definitely plan on returning for further investigation. A nice side addition was the sweet and green plantains. This sweet and savory combo caused fights over who got the last of each, and should always be at the table when dining at Calle Ocho.

Last but not least, we shared a beautifully prepared and tasting dessert of toasted coconut ice cream, placed within a thin chocolate shell and surrounded by a deep red and almost too sweet raspberry sauce. Although decadent, how can anyone not enjoy the combo of coconut, chocolate and raspberry? It made for a great end to a delicious meal of fancy Latin food that might make a trip back uptown worth it.

A reason to go to the Upper West Side

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