Pity the poor ethnic restaurateur, trying to introduce Midwesterners to his savory native fare. Give 'em the authentic, high-octane workup, and timid palates will run and hide; pull back and tone down, and experienced tabletop travelers will gripe about the lack of zest.
So we feel for Sylvia and Vicente Roldán, owners of the Caribbean restaurant 83 Degrees. Since its opening earlier this year in a former Taco Bell in Old Brooklyn, Chef Vicente admits, he's backed down on the garlic and spices in response to feedback from his non-Hispanic clientele. And when people like us start yammering about bland preparations, the notion of throwing in the tea towel must seem pretty damn tempting.
We hope he sticks it out. After all, we don't expect a cocina criolla to explode with raw sex appeal. In many respects, in fact, Caribbean kitchens are home to the cuisine of poverty: heavy on starches like cassava (or yuca), rice, and plantain; light on red meat (with the possible exception of goat and pig); and dependent upon fiery chile peppers as well as pineapple, citrus fruits, coconut, garlic, and cilantro to add zest to dishes that might otherwise lack allure.
On the other hand, though, Caribbean food can be remarkably sophisticated: Fresh fish and seafood abound; seasoning compounds like sofrito, mojo, and jerk add depth and intrigue; and cultures as disparate as French, West African, Indian, and the native Tainos, Arawaks, and Caribes contribute signature flavor notes to what is truly a crazy quilt of global influences.
So it's a shame that so little of this gustatory sizzle finds its way into this dining room. Instead of bright, tongue-tingling chutneys, for instance, a pedestrian blend of mayo and ketchup is the tabletop condiment of choice; and as a garnish, a pleasant but mild mix of diced green olives, onions, and sweet peppers, with a scant hint of lime and lemon juice (Roldán cleverly calls it "veggie ceviche"), finds its way onto nearly every plate. True, a tiny tub of fiery habañero sauce sided one night's grouper special, and a mild roasted jalapeño appeared on a small piece of lean grilled beef (the Azteca steak); but other than that, chiles seemed mostly nonexistent. And while Roldán undoubtedly goes through plenty of his homemade sofrito in the kitchen, beyond a slight saltiness in the homey beef stew accompanying our mofongo (traditionally, a fried-and-mashed plantain ball, flavored with olive oil, garlic, and pork cracklings), and a whisper of cilantro in a shrimp-and-chorizo dish, nothing seemed to have any other type of standout flavor either.
Instead, there were tidbits like the bite-sized empanaditas, filled with finely diced pork, chicken, or beef and served with the mayo-ketchup sauce, for dipping. Warm, doughy, with lightly crisped edges, the tiny turnovers certainly took the edge off a pre-dinner case of the hungries. Still, we can tell you that ours were filled with pork only because that's what we ordered: The flavor was so subdued and understated, it could just as well have been chicken, for all our taste buds could discern.
Cheddar cheese, red and green sweet pepper, and a few chunks of very tender but not particularly flavorful lobster meat formed the filling for a big but soggy lobster quesadilla. Fresh-from-the-fryer corn fingers (like elongated hush puppies) were dense and moist, but hardly distinctive, and battered and fried calamari was notably tender, but could have been improved by more obvious notes of garlic, chiles, or citrus.
Among the "house specialty" entrées, the prettily plated beef mofongo easily took first place, with the vague, vegetative sweetness of the mashed plantains (shaped into a dome, but with no hint of the alleged garlic or pork cracklings) playing delicately against the wholesome, simple flavor of the tender stewed meat. (Shrimp, lobster, conch, octopus, and chicken mofongo is also available.)
Tidy presentation marked the Creole-style shrimp and homemade chorizo dish, too, which had been mounded on a bed of mashed cassava, topped with a slice of cheese, and then finished with a spoonful of the olive-and-pepper mixture. Still, good looks go only so far, and it took only a few one-dimensional mouthfuls before a companion gave up. "How can chorizo be so bland?" he demanded. "And doesn't 'Creole-style' imply there'll be some flavor?"
Still, if for no other reason than to marvel at the transformation that turned a former Taco Bell into a little slice of the Caribbean, foodies should enjoy checking this place out. The redecorating and reconfiguring have been impressive and more than sufficient to turn what was previously a plantain leaf of a space into a colorful pastelle, stuffed with quirky attitude and charm.
Yes, the functional but unfancy restrooms are still in an outer hallway, external to the two-level dining room, à la the old Bell, and the fluorescent lights that once illuminated the overhead menu boards remain mostly visible through a gaily colored cloth.
Drive through the old drive-thru, and you'll get a peek at (and perhaps even a wave from) Chef Roldán and his kitchen staff; diners who actually like to see what they're eating would be well advised to come during daylight hours, since in lieu of the former overhead fluorescent lighting, candles -- and, of course, the orangeish glare from the street lamps -- provide the only illumination after dark. Still, tables draped in white, red, and blue cloths, tall Spanish Colonial-style chairs, a faux fireplace filled with shimmering white candles, and the saffron-yellow and cayenne-red wall colors weave a web of exotic imaginings that are only sharpened by the presence of the Hispanic staff, the bilingual menu, and a soundtrack of Latino love songs.
Complimentary baskets of fried plantain, sweet potato, and taro chips (with more mayo-ketchup sauce) arrive at the table as soon as guests are seated, delivered by servers who immediately ask for drink orders. While a Thursday-night staffer was quick to direct us to the beverage list on the back of the menu, where piña coladas and daiquiris figured prominently, neither she nor the menu mentioned that the restaurant has not yet snared a liquor license; too bad for us, then, that we found ourselves slurping fresh, fruity, but impotent kiddie drinks, rather than the high-test cocktails we had been craving.
And too bad, too, that along with a Saturday-night banana split made with coconut ice cream and billows of whipped cream, those drinks were among the most vibrantly flavored items we sampled. (Other sweet endings included firm, eggy homemade flan and a brick of dense, dark, raisin-rich bread pudding, served cold.)
Of course, prices are moderate, service is cheerful, the ambiance is novel, and the musical trio Los Deltis -- who perform each weekend -- are talented and entertaining: Judging by the festive Saturday-night crowd, these are draws enough for many diners. On the other hand, we had had the entire dining room pretty much to ourselves on the previous Thursday night, so who knows? We suspect, though, that if the kitchen would take a chance with brighter flavors, more emphatic seasonings, and true Caribbean sass, this place might flourish all week long.
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