Worth the Splurge
Because the U.S. embargo has decimated the restaurant industry in Cuba, there are very few places on the island that match the menu of our own Victor's in scope and variety. Skip the underseasoned appetizers and ignore the shaky and slow service. Rather, start with a glass of the complex sangria and go right to the voluminous entrées, invariably accompanied by perfect white rice and the best black beans in town. Favorites include a pair of red snapper fillets crusted with plantain and flavored with sofrito, and oxtails in an aromatic gravy poured around a sweet potato mound. 236 West 52nd Street, 212-586-7714
Three Basque restaurants have opened downtown in the last couple of years, decent places all, but lacking the requisite melding of earthy flavors, and showing a cooking-school preoccupation with arrangement of elements on the plate. Decade-old Marichuso far east that it might be considered part of the United Nationssucceeds where the others fail, but at a steep price. Still, it's a pleasant place to dine, with comfortable adult furniture, nice photos of Bilbao, and a menu that goes from the predictable (paella) to the kinky (baby squid gobbed with black ink sauce). There's also a tapas menu with the finest Spanish cheese plate in town, equaling anything from France or Italy. The prix-fixe lunch of appetizer, main course, and salad ($25) is a bargain. 342 East 46th Street, 212-370-1866
I've always regarded the tired and expensive Upper East Side fixture Rosa Mexicano as one of the worst values in town, and when they opened a glitzy new branch in the bosom of Lincoln Center, it was easy to ignore. Then a friend from Austin called to report that her favorite local chef had accepted a job superintending the food at both places. A visit to the bi-level newer branchwhich features a wall of falling water out of which dive dozens of white plastic swimmersrevealed astonishing food that manages to stay true to its south-of-the-border roots, including tableside guacamole, fiery stuffed jalapeños in almond sauce, and, best of all, an entrée of chicken enchiladas in a sesame-dotted mole poblano that a Bushwick cook could be proud of. Not a bad way to blow a wad. 61 Columbus Avenue, 212-977-7700
When celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez left his twin restaurants in ABC Carpet, cynics predicted the menus would fall apart. While I found Chicama dull and overpriced, I was always fond of Pipa, and am glad to report that the food can still be thrilling. Relax in a Gothic interior that recalls both Gaudi and Miss Havisham's dining room in 'Great Expectations', and enjoy cubed pulpo dusted with smoked paprika, wonderful Catalan spinach dotted with raisins and pine nuts, and a trio of soup tastings that includes caldo gallego, a perfect mix-it-yourself gazpacho, and almond-scented ajo blanco. The smaller dishes rule. 38 East 19th Street, 212-677-2233
A few years ago upscale Latin fusion was all the rage, but now places like Patria seem old-fashioned. Stylish Calle Ocho is one of the few remaining exemplars, hard by the planetarium's eerie glowing orb in the fanciest Upper West Side neighborhood. The cavelike bar is a favorite of cocktail swillers, and the arched-ceiling dining room makes you feel like you're in the hold of a cargo ship or a giant pizza oven. Though the prices are high, the portions are humongous, so be sure to ask for a doggy bag. Stick with the lower range for some of the more unfussy fare, such as a fine skin-on chicken breast rubbed with Argentine chimichurri deposited in a lake of burnt-almond sauce and sided with a quinoa salad. Among appetizers, fresh shellfish, ceviche, and the simple goat cheese salad are recommended. 446 Columbus Avenue, 212-873-5025
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