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Happily Ever Ocho

The location is loaded with bad karma, but Calle Ocho still beats the odds -- further proof that the Upper West Side isn't the diner's nightmare it used to be.

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Since no one can resist a good cinderella story (provided it doesn't star Brandy and Whitney Houston), here's a version with such a spirited finale it merits a full mambo in glass slippers.

Once upon a time, back when finding Calibaut chocolate at Dean & DeLuca induced the same endorphin rush as an amethyst from H. Stern, Dino de Laurentiis, the producer of high-minded epics like The Bible and Mandingo, begat a gargantuan, marble-and-brass rival to Dean & DeLuca in a renovated co-op on West 81st Street. But the price tags at his uptown emporium weren't the only things in the gleaming cases that were hard to swallow. De Laurentiis took a bath that made the Great Flood seem like a baby shower.

After languishing empty for years, the space was reconfigured by Jeff Kadish and Steve Scher into an ungainly, pedestrian eatery with an awful name, Main Street, that merely reminded those of us from small towns that not only can't you go home again, why would you want to? However, in between acquiring two more partners (Paul Zweben and Spencer Rothschild) and opening their next two ventures, either they were kissed by the right frog or someone has an awfully grateful fairy godmother. The sultry Dragon Lady atmosphere and sly Pan-Asian variations at Rain on West 82nd Street are luring wary downtowners to the Upper West Side, and their Union Pacific on East 22nd is always serene and satisfying, due largely to chef Rocco DiSpirito's blossoming confidence in his own delicate touch.

Now here comes that enchanted ending. The enterprising quartet took another look at their original clumsy space, and thinking less John Philip Sousa and more Gloria Estefan, they came up with Calle Ocho, a beguiling new restaurant that insinuates its genial Latin rhythms at every rambling turn. The place's infectious high spirits don't start with the boisterous bar with its high-slatted ceiling painted a cool frond-swaying green, or its languorously snaking couches, or even the constant sounds of salsa, samba, and meringue. Nor is it Jeffrey Beers's astonishing conversion of Main Street's old brick-walled, Skinner-box dining room into a spectacular Caribbean sunset diorama with a bell-curved louvered ceiling, huge lampshades swooping down like gulls, and banquettes that curve through the room like waves along the gulf.

What puts a grin on your puss faster than two rounds of mojitos is a staff so unwaveringly winning that at first you might suspect they're a couple of shots of tequila ahead of you. From the honest answers of the maître d' to the trio of women behind the bar who prove that you don't have to brandish a plunging neckline to be an enchantress, to a dining-room crew as solicitous as they are self-assured, the only way you could remain unfazed is if you're more comfortable getting your food through a takeout window.

It's hardly surprising that Garcia, a longtime protégé of Patria's Doug Rodriguez, fills his palette with flavors from as wide a geographic range as his mentor. The difference is that while Rodriguez infuses each course with its own dramatic statement, Garcia's menu has more fluidity, so there is less dissonance when pairing dishes. Like the appetizers at Patria, Garcia's are expertly seductive (which, by the way, is the reason I'm baffled by Patria's current prix fixe menu; it's like taking a kid to Disneyland and then telling him he can hug only one Dwarf). Garcia's Peruvian shrimp chowder is a scrumptious cheap thrill, soothing until the sudden final sting of the achiote oil. Manchego cheese and meaty tomato sweetly tame ropa vieja stuffed into an empanada. Gloriously rum-glazed shrimp are stain-your-shirt juicy. Try to resist ordering another right away. Rellenos packed with a feisty chicken escabeche and scented by black olives are a compelling diversion. Or the tangy lobster seviche laced with passion-fruit mojo to be scarfed as eagerly as the house red sangria. A warm spread of goat cheese, getting a lift from a hint of pear vinaigrette, pleasantly dominates a field-green salad. Octopus and calamari become lush and pliant when grilled and tossed with tender hearts of palm and chickpeas. And the mushroom empanada with peppers and eggplant is an appealing mix of brash and musky. The only starters that miss are the corn tamales, the arepas with bacalao, which are unbalanced by the power of their ripe tomatoes, and anchovies that taste oddly like herring when paired with beets (though considering the neighborhood, these could be a big hit).

In fact, considering the neighborhood, folks may be surprised that lime mojo makes roast chicken taste bright, crackling, and new. And the pumpkin-seed crust that surrounds the mahimahi could probably make even tripe irresistible. Mixed grill may offer a lot of meat, but it's not a very distinguished lot. Instead, enjoy the hearty beef tenderloin in an almost-tart-enough fig-and-onion marmalade, or thick Cuban "steak frites," whose accompanying yuca fries deserve a Super Bowl commercial all their own. Seafood fares beautifully in coconut-laced Dominican stew, but the fish should have been added later. Salmon's flavor can seem so rooted and inflexible, but the spice rub almost relaunches it, and the saffron paella with clams and chorizo alongside could be a dish all its own.

Most Latin desserts are like Enrique Iglesias: pretty and appealing but nothing worth craving. Calle Ocho's chocolate "coconut" shell merits tearing into, but the pale ice cream inside is scant reward. Rolled chocolate cake gets little help from a whirl of white-chocolate ice cream. And no matter what nationality, banana fritters make me think of Paul Prudhomme. 'Nuff said. However, either grapefruit-guava sorbet or the especially nutty chocolate ice cream offers a loving resolution. But if you want a real fairy-tale ending, how about a phenomenal cup of coffee? Here are three knockouts from Costa Rica, Guatemala, or Columbia. Each as welcome and unexpected as a wink from Prince Charming. Calle Ocho can't promise happily ever after, but, offering such enticing sounds and smells from south of the border, it's sure a lot more fun than going to some stuffy ball. This time, Cinderella, when you kick off your shoes, you're going to stay.

Calle Ocho, 446 Columbus Avenue, at 81st Street (873-5025). Monday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday till midnight, Saturday 5 to midnight, Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Appetizers, $7 to $13. Entrées, $16 to $22. A.E., M.C., V.


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