Bistro Latino is a cave. The long narrow space is a hostel of darkness and a bungalow of noise. The dense carpet of diner gibberish and the impenetrable curtain of clangs and tinkles from flatware, glassware, dinnerware and tabletop spanks makes it impossible to tease out the background music in the place, which can be heard before it fills up or after it empties out. It's also hard to hear what the servers are saying without leaning into them and straining. Communication is a flurry of repeated phrases.
This is unfortunate because conversation is mandatory at Bistro Latino, at least if you want to eat. The lighting is so dim that it's impossible to read the menu, the wine list or even the check without a Seeing Eye dog. "What's dingo bed chilling haze?" someone at our table asked while fumbling with the sauce on the rack of lamb. There was a man one table over who must have been a regular. When the menu arrived, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a penlight, which he projected onto the wine list and then the menu. He smirked as his struggling companions wondered what a tasting of Peruvian britches might be.
These inconveniences perhaps could be alleviated by a few throw rugs, sofas, still foam wall coverings and candles on the tables. But leaning a menu into a candle flame is almost as frustrating as mangling menu descriptions because the vowels keep changing shape as your eyes struggle to focus. It's amazing to me that these restaurants that shun lumens haven't yet figured out how to tattoo their bill of fare on glow-in-the-dark plastic sheets.
As annoying as this exhaustive sensory muffling was, it was really the only irritation, as this restaurant serves a near flawless compendium of Latin-inspired dishes "using classic French technique" as the menu states in type that is significantly larger than that on the rest of the menu. It also says "Welcome to James & Lisa Neel's Latin-flavored bistro," assuming perhaps everyone has tasted a Latin before.
Noshing starts with a bowl of crisp fried plantains, which look like surfboards that were melted in a wood-burning oven. Gently salted, these long wavy chips were served with a duo of sauces: one sweetish made from bell pepper, mango and papaya; and a savory chimichurri composed of parsley, olive oil, garlic, oregano and salt. But these plantains were good even without dippers, and the bowls are replaced swiftly once exhausted.
Another astounding dipper is served with the potato-crusted calamari: butter-tender rings draped loosely in a potato batter that was slightly--but not annoyingly--greased. A small ramekin of smooth, smoky chipotle aioli was perched on the side of the serving platter; the sauce was so clean and deft and well-matched to the calamari preparation that it added a distinct and broad layer of flavor while maintaining a transparency that allowed the spuds 'n' squid flavors to peek through.
Beef empanadas were served with a grilled-onion guacamole and beaded with cilantro-lime cream sauce. The crust was light and greaseless, and it snuggled a beef stuffing that was moist and savory with a wisp of smoke. A pico de gallo side was studded with firm black beans.
Bistro Latino is the work of chef James Neel, who did his teething as the opening chef for Al Biernet's (which has undergone a series of subtle name changes over its lifetime). From there he took over Tramontana and injected his style and meticulous discipline (sometimes with mixed results), putting the Preston Center restaurant on respectable footing. Then a few months ago Neel and wife Lisa invaded another Preston Center locale, which once housed El Arroyo, creating Bistro Latino with minimal tinkering.
Which is probably good, because sometimes the entrées can get a little busy. There are a couple of sampler trios on the menu: a meat version with beef, chicken and pork; and a fish version with snapper, Chilean sea bass and salmon. When the latter arrived at our table it looked (we could see it because our eyes had by this time adapted to the darkness) as though the plate had taken a ride on a NASA G-force accelerator. It resembled a flurry of running-together sauces and sideswiped fillets. Yet it somehow functioned as if it had isolating sections like a kid's plate or maybe one of those service trays they use in prison. The sauces stayed adhered to the appropriate fillet. Onion-crusted snapper had sweaty crustiness to complement the mildly exotic snapper flavor. It sat on a bed of risotto with separate grains that were creamy but not sticky. Pumpkin seed-crusted sea bass was appropriately firm (almost resembling the texture and mild flavors of a halibut) with an earthy nuttiness that broadened the medium richness of the fish. Chili-rubbed salmon (called "chops" on the menu) was dense and flaky with a prick of spiciness on the finish. Every square millimeter of fillet real estate on the plate was fresh and meticulously prepared, with no dry patches or hard, rubbery parcels.
Bistro Latino's flounder, a special drafted on one visit, was sweet with a slight smokiness. It was prepared almost lovingly, leaving its fine texture and delicate flavors intact and unimpeded. It sat on a bed of rice with finely chopped fresh vegetables surrounding it, looking almost like confetti.
Perhaps the weakest entrée sampled was the black pepper grilled rack of lamb. This rambunctiously busy plate had stripes fanning out from the edge of the plate: corn and purees of black bean and sweet potato. The lamb chops rested on a mattress of smooth, rich Brie-and-poblano whipped potatoes. The lamb, tender but fatty, was slathered in a mango red chili glaze that leaned a little too heavily into sweetness, illuminating dim mint jelly nightmares.
Bistro Latino's wine list is a tight little roster (as bistro lists should be), though it is more California-heavy than it should be, instead of thickly riddled with entries from Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Spain, as one might expect. It does, however, have a half-dozen by-the-glass selections from Latin countries; there is even a chardonnay from Mexico.
For dessert, the crepes, filled with caramel sauce and pimpled with whole raspberries and pecans, is a standout. This tender delicate cake is dressed in crème sauce, adding a little coolness to the prevalent sweetness.
Though service was pocked by inordinately long gaps before the initial greeting, it was still excellent. Servers have a firm grasp of the menu and the wine list and understand generally how best to mingle the two.
Bistro Latino is a tight, well-executed bistro that fulfills what it sets out to do with verve. With a more Latin wine list, some sound dampening and perhaps finger flashlights with every menu, this Latin-flavored bistro could easily be the finest of the genre around.
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