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Spicy in name only

Where’s the Achiote we were promised?

Release Date: 2008-08-20

If, after reading this review, you decide to give Achiote a try, let me make a suggestion: Enter from the River Walk. That way, though parking will be more of an issue (you get three hours of free valet parking with a stamped ticket), you can avoid the soulless lobby of the Grand Hyatt. Unless, of course, you get off on airport concourses and bank lobbies.

Not that Achiote itself is cozy and inviting. (In benign weather, you might consider sitting outside, too.) With the exception of a Mexican pink screen at the rear of the restaurant — looking like a pretty direct crib from Ricardo Legorreta, the Mexican architect of the Main Library — there’s little in the way of color or décor to suggest the restaurant’s presumed Latin theme. (Just for starters, the spice that is achiote is a gorgeous, rusty-gold hue.) Lively acoustics make the place sound full with only a few tables occupied, and it may actually look full when there’s a big convention in town. But otherwise there’s no sense of being anywhere in particular; that task is left to the menu.

It does read well. There are four ceviches, for example, each presumably reflective of its place of origin. Unfortunately, we neglected to cue in on the essential fact that the Cuzco Ceviche de Estilo Sencillo is named for a town that’s nowhere near the sea; it was the “seasonal vegetable” part of the “white fish with seasonal vegetables” description that temporarily clouded our judgment. Peruvian ceviches do often contain such colorful components as corn, red onion, and purple potato; what we got was diced tomato and chopped green olives as the main garnish on fish dressed with a little citrus. Fresh, maybe, but interesting? Nope. Perhaps the marinated red snapper with Mexican spices has more going for it.

The Small Plates section of the menu touches on the Caribbean and South America — with a side step to Spain for croquetas — in its selection of Puerto Rican empanadas, Colombian queso dulce, Cuban papas con chorizo, and more. Looking for a combination of familiar and unique, we selected Bajia-style mussels and an Ecuadorian salad of fava beans with roasted peppers. The mussels weren’t distinctively Brazilian in any detectable way (if there was coconut milk, for example, it was present in trace elements), but they were acceptable, and the bread supplied with the appetizers served perfectly well as a sauce-sopper. The fava-bean salad consisted primarily of garbanzos, however; what habas there were were undercooked, and the slivered, red bell peppers hadn’t been roasted at all. It fell to bowls of Cuban black-bean soup to lift the appetizer portion of the meal from mediocrity. More garlic wouldn’t have hurt. And if ham hocks had been used, a little of their meat would also have been appreciated … but in general, the soup was satisfying. Too bad it was snatched away so quickly.

Service did start out pleasantly, though a tad slow, with a single waitress, but it built to a near-frenzy when table-clearing between courses was deemed necessary. Several servers then descended with locust-like determination. Water was kept refilled, however, and wine was more-or-less poured when required. Which leads to a digression: the wine list. It’s probably larger than it needs to be, given the menu — and yet not large enough. Rosés, for example, would be perfect with much of what we ate, but I found only one on the list, and it seemed overpriced. We compromised on an Argentine chardonnay from Bodega Catena Zapata. Easy drinking, but not really worth its $38 tariff.

The wine came closest to working with the one standout dish of the evening, the arroz con gandules y lechon. Yellow, Puerto Rican rice is almost inescapable on the entrée portion of the menu, but it’s appropriately studded with the classic pigeon peas and has an appealingly earthy flavor. Sides of fried plantain were also appreciated. The lechon arrived in three large slabs, suggesting it hadn’t been cut from the suckling pig the name implies, but it was nonetheless moist, more than hinting of garlic (a good thing, in case you’re wondering), and just fatty enough to create that wanted, unctuous mouthfeel. Bravo, bravo, bravo.

The pescado frito with salsa Veracruz y arroz was less worthy of accolades. As both the sauce and the yellow rice were served in separate crocks, the fried, whole tilapia looked a little naked on its platter. It begged to be sampled first without any cloaking. Big mistake. Zero taste. Quite dry. The thick sauce, sporting the usual olives, capers, tomato and bay-leaf seasoning, was contrastingly complex and hearty. Put together, they almost made an $18 main. (Entrée pricing in general is quite reasonable, however.) Other Regional Specialties include Dominican fried pork chops, fajitas for the fearful, and pollo con chile verde. From the Grill you can get flat-iron steak and rib eye, among other possibilities. And From the Oven come cod, snapper, salmon, and chicken, apparently without any ethnic affiliation.

Allow me now to correct myself: There was one other standout dish — rice pudding. Oh, at the time I complained about the al-dente texture of the creamy rice with raisins, but it’s the dish I now think of most fondly in retrospect. I suppose the chantilly cream on top wasn’t really necessary, but it was welcome, as was the gentle hand with sweeteners. Had there been a more generous use of ancho-chile seasoning in the dense, flourless chocolate cake, it too might have made memorable status. As it was, we had to remind ourselves of the chile component before it made itself known — a condition that, upon more pondering, was emblematic of the restaurant as a whole. If achiote was in evidence anywhere — in color, in flavor, in attitude — I missed it.


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