Acclaimed chef, author and restaurateur Rafael Palomino recently opened Bistro Latino in the space first occupied by Boxing Cat Café and then Greenwich Tavern in Old Greenwich. The vast dining room has been done over in dark wood flooring which is flanked by racked walls that flaunt an extensive portfolio of international wines.
Palomino won his food-star stripes when he opened Sonora in Manhattan almost two decades ago, introducing Manhattan to Nuevo Latino cuisine, and earning raves from the city’s food critics. Sonora's wild success inspired Rafael to bring his unique cooking style to satellite restaurants in New Haven, Tuckahoe, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Sonora now lives in Port Chester.
Despite its name, Greenwich's Bistro Latino is not really Nuevo Latino since the dishes are more of Spain than Latin and South America. Rafael has created a menu that features European tapas and paella -- which he anoints with flavors from his Columbian and Queens roots. "Spanish bathed in Picante Style," is how the restaurant describes it. As a result, Bistro Latino is really more about invention than tradition.
Case in point is Raphael's signature dish, Paella Palomino. The saffron and sofrito seasoned rice, piled high with briny mussels, scallops and shrimp evokes Spain's eastern coast. But the generous portions of succulent lobster meat are more Maine than Mediterranean, and flavor the dish with a sweet nor'easterly taste and touch.
Homemade Cocas (flatbreads) provide the ideal canvas for Palomino's creativity. His Coca Vaquero marries an aromatic Spanish bleu cheese (Valderon) with a slice of delicately seasoned skirt steak, one of my favorite, albeit decadent, taste combos. But when Raphael adds truffle and honey sauce, the appetizer becomes far more nuanced and multidimensional than mere beef with bleu.
The Cocas menu is constantly evolving because the blank slates invite experimentation. And many of Palomino’s inventions are mothered by necessity.
"I come to the kitchen and see extra ingredients I don't want to go to waste," he told us. So the owner/chef tries out different combinations, relying first on his own instincts and experience before inviting the opinions of everyone from waitstaff to dishwashers. If a creation excites enough palates, he will introduce it as a special.
Recently, Rafael added pork belly to the extensive tapas menu, an imaginative combination of crunch and confection. The charred meat, seasoned with cinnamon and chipotle, rests on a bed of red pepper jam. The two peppers, chipolte and red, flatter each other, flavoring the pork with contrapuntal smokey heat and candied sweetness. Such whimsical contrasts are found in many of Palomino’s dishes, especially the flat bread and tapas.
Other small plate standouts ….
Blue crab croquettes -- succulent lump crab meat, bound with egg and bread crumbs, then sauced with whole grain mustard aioli. The ball shape of the croquette is a well-rounded alternative to Maryland style crab cakes.
Corderito Al Guiso -- a hearty osso bucco style veal shank, braised with root vegetables in a port wine reduction. The slow cooked meat, still moist, slips off the bone. No knife needed (though we could have used a marrow fork.)
Atun al Sarten -- Fusion, Palomino style. The mild yellow fin tuna from Hawaii, is seared by way of Asia in a Spanish frying pan (Sarten), then dipped into a sexy French aioli. Rafael assures everyone that his yellow fin is sustainable.
Papas a la Francesa. Palomino latinizes his frites with grated Manchego quesos ("the Cheese from La Mancha"). Finished with truffle oil and paprika, these tasty fries still retain their crisp exterior. I don’t like interiors too fluffy, especially when the fry carries distinctive seasoning. These thin papas do not disappoint.
Gambas Al Ajillo. The large, garlicky shrimp are sautéed and then served in a sizzling cazuela. Use the accompanying cocas points to scoop up the puddles of garlic sauce. The word around our table: “yum.”
When it comes to sausages and cheeses, the menu is less experimental and more authentic. The country ham, cured in the mountains of Spain, is lean, tender, and thin, not unlike prosciutto, though maybe less delicate. A Rocal sheep milk cheese imported from the Basque region is redolent of butter, nuts, and grasses. And the Valderon that pairs with the steak cocas can also be ordered solo, wrapped in sycamore leaves, which contribute to its unique presentation and flavor.
The myriad tastes of small plates – and the fun of sharing them -- are enhanced by Bistro Latino’s caipirinhas, mojitos and margaritas. But sangrias are the specialty of the house; as many as five different choices can be found on the extensive spirits and wine menu.
For some reason, Rafael labels his flan as “crème brulee.” Though both are custards, flan wears a soft caramel crown, while Brulee is topped with thick, brittle caramelized sugar. What we enjoyed at Bistro Latino was no fusion creation, but classical flan, the ancient dessert of Spanish speaking nations around the globe.
Palomino’s simple, traditional Flan does his people proud. It glistens, shimmers and dances on the plate when brought to the table and each creamy, eggy, sugary spoonful tastes like a sweet summer kiss. An old-fashioned finish to Nuevo dining.
1392 East Putnam Avenue
[Photography courtesy of Thomas McGovern Photography]