Brave New World Cuisine
Nuevo Latino star chef Rafael Palomino dazzles with his new Greenwich restaurant.
By Marge Perry and David Bonom
Restaurateur, chef, and author Rafael Palomino’s most recent venture, Palomino Restaurant, represents somewhat of a departure from his other area restaurants, Sonora and Pacifico, as well as from his line of “Latino Chef” sauces and condiments. His new eponymous restaurant has less of his signature “Nuevo Latino” focus, and the menu offerings more aptly could be described as “world cuisine.”
But this is not a bad thing. As much as we revere Chef Palomino for his role in bringing “Nuevo Latino” flavors to the American general public, as much as we laud him for helping make cilantro a household word, and as much as we appreciate his wonderful cookbooks, we admire him all the more for taking a step in this bold new direction.
While, for example, the atmosphere and decor of Palomino has a sophisticated, sexy, and, yes, Latino flair, dishes like the roasted golden beet-and-arugula salad peppery arugula and creamy, rich Cyprus Grove goat cheese highlight jewel-like sweet golden beets are far more suggestive of the Mediterranean.
A tender malt-brined Berkshire pork chop, on the other hand, was a distinct nod to the South, and not South America, but the southern United States. It was grilled to pink, juicy perfection and served with an aptly described “firecracker applesauce,” garlicky chard, and pickles. There is a reason this combination of flavors endures: the big, bold flavors balance each other like the components of an all-brass band.
Most of the food could not be pegged to a cuisine. A fun and tasty lobster trio included a beautiful-looking ceviche “shooter” of lobster and blood orange in which the blood orange somehow did not assert its signature sour flavor but lent a nice touch of acidity, the beach-evoking and irresistible little dollop of lobster salad and its sidekick of mustardy slaw, and a tempura lollipop of golden-crusted succulent lobster meat. This trio was a lovable mutt, with flavors and textures coming from everywhere.
Twice we tasted the Montana buffalo rib-eye, and twice it was a spectacularly tasty, perfectly prepared steak. Mesquite grilling lent just the right touch of smoky flavor to this tender, richly flavored meat. On one occasion, it was served with a heady gratin of lobster mashed potatoes; on the other it was a rich, homey potato, onion, and cheese gratin.
Tuna steak also was perfectly cooked, and once again the accompaniments, including a mild sun-dried tomato chimichurri, lent just enough flavor to allow the star, in this case, the tuna, to shine. And again, the side dish was no mere afterthought: the sweet-and-sour quinoa salad was itself good enough to make us come back.
The food clearly is without geographical boundaries, but that does not mean it is in any way undisciplined. Global ingredients, flavors, and techniques are combined with thoughtful balance and true artistry. While the rich, velvety seared foie gras was lolling around in our mouths, we weren’t thinking of how clever the food was; we were greedily anticipating our upcoming bite of the sweet corn polenta cake and passion-fruit sorbet that was its accompaniment.
It would have been unfair to expect every dish to thrill us. But only one truly disappointed. A seared magret duck breast was oddly tough, thickly sliced, and even somewhat mealy. It was a shame, because we would have enjoyed the cracked black pepper and molasses flavorings, if only the meat had been good. But with every other dish being so completely enjoyable, we were anxious to see what dessert might bring. Could it live up to our entrees?
Many desserts fell short. Pass on the rhubarb crisp, with its gummy thick filling, and the soggy-crusted and somewhat bland Key lime tart. The warm white chocolate-and-orangebread pudding, on the other hand, served with vanilla cr¨¨me anglaise and a syrupy reduction of pomegranate, had lovely white chocolate-and-orange flavor. Best of all, though, were the light, airy, warm applesauce donuts, served sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and accompanied by calvados creme anglaise. They were so good, in fact, that on one visit, the diners at the table next to us, after a bite of theirs, were inspired to urge us to order them.
Palomino Restaurant is a rare treat. The food is creative, the flavors thoughtfully balanced, and the global ingredients seamlessly intertwined. There is both a lovely wine list and an impressive list of fun and flirty cocktails, the service is flawless, and the quietly chic amber-lit environment seems just the place in which to enjoy it all. In taking a step away from the cuisine for which he is so well known and which was, in its time, an incredible innovation; Palomino has shown he has the real stuff of a dazzling chef and restaurateur.
palomino restaurant â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…
1392 E Putnam Ave, Old Greenwich, CT
(203) 698-9033; www.palominorestaurants.com
Hours: lunch Mon to Fri 12-3 pm; dinner Mon to Wed 5-10 pm, Thur and Fri 5-11 pm, Sun 5-9 pm. Appetizers: $9-$19; entrees: $22-$35;
â˜…â˜…â˜…â˜…—Outstanding â˜…â˜…â˜…—Very Good