Photo by Cathy Pinsky
The interior of Rafael Palomino’s new Bistro Latino in Tuckahoe matches the sophisticated vibe of his other restaurants—but the food is another story.
When a chef and/or restaurateur you admire creates an appealing-sounding concept, only good things can come of it, right? And if the new venture happens to be named after your well-splattered copy of his first cookbook, all the better. Or so it would seem.
We had high hopes for Colombian-born Chef Rafael Palomino’s newest restaurant, Bistro Latino. As a restaurateur, Palomino is masterful at creating ambience in keeping with his food and his mission. Each of his restaurants has had a distinct personality, ranging from the sophisticated and sexy Palomino (which he then made over into a comfortable American eatery, Greenwich Tavern) to Port Chester’s more vibrant Sonora, with its distinctive Latino buzz. Bistro Latino captures just what its name promises: the wood floors and chairs; tables just close enough to create a neighborly feel but not so close that you are in the next table’s conversation; and the open, casual vibe you’d expect from a comfortable, local hangout. Servers are friendly, and professional—again, just what we want to see in a warm and tight little spot on a side street in downtown Tuckahoe.
The menu hits that go-to favorite sweet spot, too. Grazers can work their way through the selection of meats and cheeses, tapas, and cocas (flatbreads)—but diners who prefer “three squares” have five entrée options plus specials. And the menu reads well: It touts authentic and intriguing-sounding Latino ingredients, including chorizo imperial “from the free-range, black-footed pigs who feed from acorns.” The charcuterie and queso platter selections offered this and other glimpses of Spanish meats and cheeses, such as smoky, garlicky cantimpalo sausage—more akin to salami or cured chorizo than what you might think of as sausage, with a heady balance of fat and meat that is just this side of indecent. Wide ribbons of serrano ham were tender and moist, and perfectly at home in classic partnership with any of the five Spanish cheeses. The platter hit both a high and a low note: We loved the jammy, über-sweet, braised red and white Tempranillo grapes, which begged to be spooned over Valdeón, a Spanish blue cheese. But we shouldn’t have had to ask for the tough, stale bread to be replaced.
It was a bad day for bread: The flatbreads, which are brought to the table with chickpea purée in lieu of the usual bread and butter, had been crisp and toasty on a previous visit but were now chewy.
On the other hand, our previous visit was a bad day for saffron, which was completely missing from the lobster paella. Bland and soggy rice made a pallid bed for an outstanding, tender, golden-crusted scallop with a barely translucent center; sweet lobster tail and claw meat; shrimp; mussels; clams; and thin slices of chorizo. Saffron also was missing from (although described as an ingredient in) the pollo al azafran, a very small half-chicken topped with sliced manchego and served with pleasantly chunky mashed potatoes and sharply salty mushroom sauce.
As much as we oohed and ahhed over the exquisitely perfect scallop in the paella, we bemoaned the obliteration of scallops by a screamingly sweet cider-vinegar cava sauce in the tapas dish vieiras al sarten.
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On another visit, we learned that our Perfect Scallop Moment had passed. We gave the paella another try, and, this time, the rice was (thankfully) perfumed with just enough saffron—but it looked as though the scallops were steamed, not seared—and for quite a while. As perfectly tender, moist, and flavorful as the seafood was last time, it was rubbery and dull this time.
And yet…plump, sweet mussels were like coy, innocent girls flirting with a swaggering bully of tomato broth full of chorizo. However, the tortilla Espanola, typically a frittata-like egg dish with layers of potato, was more like a greasy rösti; it was made with shredded potato that had been barely held together, and the potato was slightly crunchy in the center.
We don’t mind when Chef Palomino departs from authenticity to spin traditional dishes in new ways. It is, after all, why we all loved him so many years ago, when he was on the leading edge of a culinary movement called Nuevo Latino. Little “sandwiches” of chunky salmon tartare between crisp potato gaufrettes (waffled potato chips) were lovely, clean-tasting, and fun. And the Nuevo Latino spin worked beautifully in a dish listed on the menu as “flan,” but which had the creamy, rich, custard-like texture of crème brûlée, and raspberry sauce in place of the expected caramel sauce. But, as much as we loved the custard, we were startled by hard little bits in our mouths, and puzzled for several minutes over what they could be. Burned sugar? A ground-up pit of some kind? We settled on large, hard, berry seeds.
We wanted to love—or even like—Bistro Latino. But we had too many dishes that didn’t get anywhere near the mark to chalk it up to an off moment or two. We can only hope that however this restaurant slipped, Chef Palomino will take notice and give it his talent and attention.
64 Main St, Tuckahoe
(914) 961-2233; bistrolatinorestaurant.com
Hours: Tues to Thurs 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri 11:30 am-11 pm; Sat 10:30 am-11 pm; Sun 10:30 am-9 pm
Appetizers: $6.95-$17.95; entrées: $21.95-$28.95; desserts: $8