When I flipped over the cheap fish tacos at Pampano Taqueria recently, I resolved to pay a visit to Pampano, the expensive mother ship berthed around the corner on East 49th Street. That both joints are partly owned by Plácido Domingo is a good thing, since the dapper Mexico City tenor presumably knows the difference between good and bad Mexican food. Perhaps not in Pampano’s favor: It’s just one link in a chain of fancy Mexican restaurants extending from Denver to Dubai. Receiving two stars from the outgoing Biff Grimes in the Times soon after it opened, but few other printed appraisals, it was ripe for a visit.
As you enter the former townhouse and ascend to the podium, a greeter beams down like Saint Petra at the gates of heaven. Behind her is your earthly reward, the kind of palm-lined bar that might be found in any resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast. The list of mixed drinks goes way beyond that of the local margarita mills. Strewn with dried flowers, the hibiscus margarita ($9) is much better than it has any right to be, since this red blossom is the principal component of Red Zinger tea and some of the most awful sodas in the Caribbean. Though most drinks are reconfigured margaritas—including one made with blood orange and another, less invitingly, with waterlogged strawberries—you won’t get bored with tequila.
If your reservation is honored for the time indicated, you can bypass the bar and sweep up another stairway past vertiginous whorls of stucco, keeping your balance with a firm hand on the railing. Upstairs you’ll find a handsome room with a cathedral ceiling done in serene tones of beige, but fearsome in noise level when full. This room offers the sole portal to a delightful outdoor patio, where, at sunset, you can watch the lights in the surrounding skyscrapers twinkle on. The patio is decorated with crazy metal fish sculptures, which are undoubtedly there to remind you to stick with the fish.
First evidence of this is the guacamole ($9.50). It sometimes arrives fatigued, as if it had been made hours earlier. By contrast, the ceviche is as good as ceviche gets, iced and swimming in thick tasty sauces. Of the four choices ($12 to $13.50 each), my favorite is the funky mackerel perfumed with habaneros, though the tuna with smoky poblano peppers is a close second. Other seagoing starters are similarly stunning. There’s a trio of miniature lobster tacos and a small plate of octopus tentacles with a corn-and-jicama dice. Avoid the fried appetizers, such as the snapper quesadillas and shrimp empanadas, because the proportion of seafood is minuscule.
In keeping with the secret message of the metal sculptures, choose a fish entrée, rather than, say, the dryish lamb mixiotes. Best is the whole baby red snapper ($29.50), miraculously deboned with head and tail intact, then splayed so that the torso can be stuffed, somewhat macabrely, with cactus salad. Most other choices are less interesting, including black bass, monkfish, and of course, pompano, rendered as delicate fillets with something of an institutional, portion-controlled air about them. These fillets typically arrive arranged on a bed of finely chopped vegetables, fruits, and beans. While you’d be totally impressed if you encountered these presentations in Dubai, in midtown Manhattan, where whole fish is the rule, the repetitively plated fillets seem a bit cheesy.