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Pan Am Express

Suddenly, the Big Apple's gone bananas for plantain and mad for mojítos. Here's where to indulge your passion for all things quasi-Latin.

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In the beginning, there was Patria. For a few years earlier this decade, while his pan-Asian and Med Rim cohorts were up to their elbows in wasabi and couscous, chef Doug Rodriguez enjoyed a near-monopoly on Nuevo Latino, the cooking style (and marketing strategy) whereby yuca, corn, and other indigenous New World produce are alchemized into the sort of architecturally plated revisionist cuisine that fetches $54 a person, prix fixe. At the same time, Argentine steakhouses and Brazilian all-the-meat-you-can-eat churrascarias were infiltrating Manhattan, weaning A1-addicted taste buds off the bottle in favor of parsley-flecked chimichurri steak sauce.

None of this food is, of course, new to New York, where Cuban rice-and-beaneries and Dominican chicken joints have long proliferated everywhere from Jackson Heights to Washington Heights. What's new is the interpretive spirit in which pan-Latino flavors and ingredients are adapted -- skeptics might say watered down and marked up -- for a North American palate. But what's lost in authenticity is made up for in sophisticated presentation and an attempt to reinvigorate food that sometimes suffers from lard overload. After all, the savvy restaurateurs blazing the Nuevo Latino flavor trail are targeting one of the finickiest, ficklest clienteles around. Below, a selective guide to Nueva York's most promising Nuevo Latino newcomers.

IDEYA
349 West Broadway
625-1441

A friendly new bistro on SoHo's main drag, Ideya feels more Collins Avenue than Cuba. But potentially snooty South Beach connotationsand West Broadway address notwithstanding, the service couldn't be sweeter. And as long as chef Christopher Rios maintains the kitchen quality, there's no danger of the room's devolving into a raucous theme park for tropical cocktail culture. Among the appetizers, the Venezuelan arepas, kernel-flecked corn cakes oozing melted manchego cheese ($7), were a standout. The duck empanadas ($9), although containing proportionately more yuca and carrot than fowl, are liberated from the starchy texture that tends to calcify the dough casing; the ring of chili-and-sour-orange "ketchup" gives the pastry a nice citric zing. The vegetable paella ($14) tasted bland, but that's because we'd already become jaded, arroz-wise, by what the menu immodestly -- but accurately -- refers to as "perfect rice and beans" ($4).

No matter how you get there, all Ideya meals should end at the same, intensely sweet place: the coconut-crusted, dulce-de-leche-flavored flan ($6) with a mug of Café Bustelo coffee.

CAFÉ HABANA
17 Prince Street
625-2001

Something of the greasy-spoon spirit of its beloved predecessor, Bellas, lives on in this Latin-flavored luncheonette run by the enterprising team behind the increasingly gentrified block's Rialto restaurant and Bread & Butter takeout shop. Café Habana's managing partner and chef both come from Vera Cruz -- the Williamsburg restaurant, not the Mexican state -- which accounts for a strong Mexi-can presence on the menu.On weekends, at brunch, the downtown demimonde descends in all its dreadlocked, cell-phone-toting, motorcycle-riding, suede-sneakered glory on the renovated room with its new tile floor and tightly packed celadon formica tables. You might elect to skip that overheated scene andits Mexican egg-and-home-fry variations in favor of the less-frenetic dinner hour, when the waif-resses actually have time to flirt with single scenesters slouched on counter stools.

Begin with the grilled Mexican corn cobs, sweetly charred and sprinkled with grated cheese, chili powder, and lime ($3.50). The roast pork and garlic chicken are honest, hearty portions, but the real gustatory surprise is the burger, a thick, juicy chunkof chopped meat with lotsof drippy Cheddar (if you choose) and a half-sour pickle with real personality ($5.95).

L-RAY
64 West 10th Street
505-7777

Cuban and Mexican influences -- but no burgers -- show up on L-Ray's menu, too, which the management classifies as Gulf Rim, the Gulf of Mexico-bounded territory that extends, gastronomically, to Louisiana and Texas. (Chef Aaron Sanchez is the son of Zarela Martinez, of the renowned Zarela's.) The place is done up in a self-consciously themey, born-on-the-bayou way, with six accordions behind glass and a raw bar dispensing shrimp cocktail, seviche, and such frat-house culinary capers as oyster shooters, served in a "sangrita bath" with a shot of tequila ($8.50). Not sold on shellfish in your liquor? Other options include a savory duck-confit enchilada with toasted pumpkin seeds ($8.50) and a black-bean-and-cheese chile relleno in a sauce we wouldn't call spicy, menu description notwithstanding ($7.50). Fish excels, from simple grilled mako with a choice of tangy relishes ($15.50) to panfried grouper with wild mushrooms and green chili ($17).

The beverage list is as eclectic as the menu, with potent Cuban mojítos and daiquiris offered alongside margaritas, a dozen sherries by the glass, and an adventurous, well-priced wine list with a courageous dearth of Chardonnay.

CALLE OCHO
446 Columbus Avenue,near 81st Street
873-5025

The most exotic thing about Calle Ocho is its design: Jeffrey Beers's radical transformation of the barnlike comfort-food station that used to be Main Street into a sultry, sophisticated bar and restaurant. The long bar and elevated cocktail lounge have already become a popular rendezvous for mojítos, daiquiris, and the rest of the rum-and-lime concoctions that have suddenly supplanted the Cosmopolitan.

The menu, under the supervision of Patria veteran Alex Garcia, is fluent in the current culinary lingo, listing arepas, empanadas, seviche, and all the other catchwords of the pan-Latino craze. The presentation is flawless. But close your eyes and the pollito -- chicken allegedly marinated for a day and a half in a mixture of herbs and lime juice, served with Peruvian purple potatoes -- could almost pass for roast chicken and mashed spuds off the Main Street menu. If only the seasoning in dishes like beef tenderloin in malbec wine sauce and crispy, potato-encased snapper were as bold as Beers's whimsical South American stage set.

Desserts have more personality, particularly ice creams and sorbets in flavors like grapefruit-guava, spiced bread, and vanilla-tamarind.

BOLIVAR
206 East 60th Street
838-0440

Across town, Bolivar seemed to be born with buzz, but to be fair, it probably inherited some from its predecessor on that East Side corner, the stylishly southwestern Arizona 206. The same successful young clientele has been flocking to the wooden-beamed, stucco-walled restaurant to sample chef Larry Kolar's meticulously researched (and then creatively re-spun) Peruvian and Argentine fare. Main dishes like rodizio beef, chimichurri lamb leg, and panca-spice-crusted chicken ($12 to $25, unadorned) are grilled, South American-style, on an enormous parrilla. The holdover Arizona margarita is offered alongside more geographically relevant cocktails like pisco sours, caipirinhas, and mojítos; they're best accompanied by an assortment of $5 piqueos, snacks like escabeche (pickled vegetables) and papas rellenas (potato croquettes stuffed with smoked tomatoes and beef). Seviche comes five ways, made with tuna, sea bass, octopus, oysters, or fluke. Lobster and chicken soups are hearty and comforting, studded with tubers and grains. But starch finds its delectable apotheosis in sides like yuca gratin, ñame pancakes, and crisp onion rings fried in a chili-spiced batter. We're hard-pressed to find anything particularly Latino about the chocolate-ganache cake with laurel ice cream, but that's not a complaint. For a more thematic ending, try the pineapple-cassava cake with pisco-raisin ice cream, or the miniature anise doughnuts with dulce de leche ice cream.

CAMPO
89 Greenwich Avenue
691-8080

If doughnuts do it for you, don't miss the fresh, hot sour-cream-orange variety at Campo. In fact, don't miss Campo at all. The homey, unassuming West Village storefront serves the best food we sampled for this pan-Latino roundup, and it's not even technically pan-Latino. Chef-owner Steven Picker prefers the designation "country cuisine of the Americas," which gives him lots of latitude to include such satisfying Middle Americana as fried-green-tomato-and-arugula salad with buttermilk dressing, and the kind of country-kitchen brunch specials (buttermilk biscuits, pumpernickel waffles with smoked salmon) you'd expect from the former executive chef of Sarabeth's. But Picker's just as successful with Latin American comfort food like sancocho ($17), a hearty Colombian chicken stew dense with tubers, corn on the cob, and avocado, accompanied by kernel-studded corn arepas and sublime white rice. The wine list, with a dozen bottles priced between $19 and $37, ranges geographically from a Chilean Pinot Noir to a Finger Lakes Riesling, and the Latin American cocktails are exceedingly generous. Campo -- open, happily, for breakfast, brunch, and dinner -- is one of those sweet, home-away-from-home places where inspired food (both Nuevo Latino and old-fashioned American) and casual atmosphere conspire to make regulars out of first-time visitors. And that's a theme we can relate to.


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