Latin flavors in Port Chester
Although nuevo—the opening was in May—Sonora has already garnered a loyal throng of fans, delighting diners with what owner and executive chef Rafael Palomino calls “Bistro Latino” cuisine. (It is the name of the cookbook he penned three years ago as well). Born and raised in Colombia’s capital BogotÃ¡, Palomino, today a resident of Bedford, pays homage to his Colombian roots—as well as the kitchens of Peru, Brazil and Argentina. And while his creations may be a conglomeration of Latin plus French and Mediterranean cooking, thank the food Gods they do not devolve into that tedious hodgepodge known as world cuisine. No matter what you call the cuisine, you must agree: his food is delicious.
Palomino learned first the cuisine of his country but gradually began to expand, a process that was expedited after he moved to the United States. He was then 13. By age 16, he was apprenticing with chef Larry Forgione at Brooklyn’s River CafÃ©, the fabled restaurant with what is arguably the best view of New York City’s downtown skyline. He next studied French haute cuisine with celebrated chef Michel Guerard at Eugenie-les-Bains in France and continued his culinary education with Jonathan Waxman, the chef who first brought “California cuisine” to New York with his influential Jams restaurant. Eventually Palomino opened Inca Grill in SoHo, Bistro Latino on Broadway and the original Sonora on East 39th Street. Not content to rest on his laurels, Palomino has brought his Sonora franchise to Port Chester.
The main floor of the Westchester branch features warm, sun-kissed walls decorated with Inca carvings, contemporary banquettes, high-back chairs and tiled floors. The bar area is open and welcoming but the second floor lacks decorative charm. Salsa music plays in the background but in a hushed tone: There’s no need to shout to be heard.
The drink selection is particularly impressive. Brazil’s staple Caipirinha, a potent combination of rum, sugar and fresh limes is outstanding as is Cuba’s Mojito (same ingredients but substitute fresh mint for the limes). Honored guests can request the Peruvian cocktail Pisco Sour with their names written with Angostura bitters across the foam. But why not start with a chilled glass of fine sherry. Exotic Latin American beers are another option, and the wine list is not bad either. A semi-dry and quite good Martin Codax Albarino ($32) from the northwest region of Spain accompanied our meal.
The plates at Sonora are gorgeous—Martha Stewart would be so proud—in magnificent colors: teal, cobalt, ochre and dandelion. As soon as we were seated a basket promptly arrived of lightly fried plantains, a vegetable that shows up quite often at Sonora, wearing many disguises. Delicately battered crab cakes ($10.50) began our culinary adventures, offering hints of avocado, cucumber and papaya. Ceviche, a distinctively Latin dish of raw fish cured until “cooked” in citrus juice, also makes more than one appearance on the menu. Ceviche Langosta ($12), chilled lobster ceviche served with red Bermuda onions and sweet mango, included a palate cleansing sugar cane. The introductions were delicious but the handsome Latino waiters, eager to please, brought our main courses less than 30 seconds after clearing our appetizer plates. We had no time to digest—or reflect.
Filleted, pan-seared tuna ($21.95) arrived crusted with crunchy plantains, giving the noble fish a delightfully refreshing texture. Its accompaniment: more plantains, this time softened and mashed, sweetened with honey. The pan-seared salmon ($18.95) was cooked with Caipirinha, the rum and sugar uniting to create a slightly sticky caramelized crust. A luscious lobster and mango chutney accompanied the dish. The great Spanish classic paella ($22.95) arrived in a pan large enough for two. Delicious yellow rice and cilantro served as a mere backdrop for steamed mussels and clams, zesty shrimp and fabulous chorizo. The paella also included a proud lobster still in its shell, making eating a bit awkward.
On the dessert front, passion fruit flan with caramelized sugar ($7) was heavenly and the piece de resistance—warm fondue of dolce de leche, cream and Gruyere cheese with ripe strawberries for dipping—could bring an adult to tears.
170 Rectory Rd., Port Chester
Dinner, Tue. to Sun.
Main courses: $17-$22.95