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Salsa on the Side

Jimmy Rodriguez turns up the volume on sleepy East 57th Street with the opening of the newest branch of his sexy Bronx supper club.

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In this era of subtly polished, ultrathemed restaurants, proprietors don't usually plaster their names over the door in a garish, self-aggrandizing way. There are a few exceptions, of course. Ambitious French chefs still like to let you know who's boss (Jean Georges, Ducasse, Daniel, etc.), and so does Jimmy Rodriguez. Jimmy is the Toots Shor of uptown New York, a glad-handing impresario who began his career selling bowls of his father's special seafood soup off a pushcart in the Bronx. Although he's only 39, his empire has grown to include the flashy, highly successful dining club Jimmy's Bronx Café, and Jimmy's Uptown, which opened a year or so ago, in Harlem. Now comes Jimmy's Downtown, an ambitiously swank version of these other establishments set, of all places, on the eastern fringes of 57th Street, among the haute wine shops and poodle-grooming spas of Sutton Place.

This austere new location doesn't seem to have cramped Jimmy's effusive style. The façade of his new joint has clean, almost demure, design, but once inside you're greeted by a wall of booming merengue sounds and a succession of friendly hostesses dressed in slinky nightclub attire. Architect Ilan Waisbrod (BondSt, Republic) has designed the bar-lounge area as a long hall leading to a circular dining room. The lounge is flanked by low-slung banquettes on one side and a glimmering bar on the other, so walking to your table feels a little like strutting down a catwalk in the midst of some zany, salsa-inspired fashion show.

For the legions of stodgy midtowners Jimmy hopes to attract, this may not be such a bad thing, of course. On one of my first visits, I lingered for an hour or so in the lounge with a group of more or less stodgy midtown friends. After dizzying ourselves with a selection of Jimmy's overpriced, cartoon-colored cocktail drinks (try the Coco-Nana-Tini, which smells like an exotic form of tanning lotion), we felt like we'd landed in one of the swankier precincts of Rio or Miami Beach. The drinks had something to do with this, and so did the crowd, a boisterous mix of uptown regulars and couples dressed for the evening in a variety of sparkly, hip-hugging styles. "These people are all tall, they're tanned, they're gorgeous," whispered one of the addled midtowners. "I don't think they're from around here."

Gorgeousness and good food don't always mix, but there are a few surprises on the menu. During one meal, I encountered a perfectly grilled piece of sturgeon, firm but not too tough, accompanied by a soothing mash of fresh avocados. The "Adobo Roasted Chicken" turned out to be a crisply roasted chicken breast, set on a corn cake melted into a pool of tangy, green chimichurri sauce. If you want to sample a few items off the involved appetizer/lounge menu, try the diver scallops (crusted on top with yuccas), or the chicharron de pollo, fried into crackly little nuggets and served with a bay leaf stuck in the top. The empanadas (chicken, mushroom) seemed a little chalky, but the shrimp hushpuppies tasted fine as greasy gourmet foods go, and the soft-shell crabs (served in a stew of capers and summer tomatoes) were crisp and moist without being too chewy.

Sometimes, chef Linda Japngie, who used to run the kitchen at Jimmy's Uptown, lays things on a little thick. My potentially delicate duck breast was muffled in a swampy mix of pear purée and mashed plantains, and Jimmy's signature paella was bulky enough to eat with a trowel. The sirloin steak I sampled was cut into giant, quivering sections, and my grilled pork chop would have been more palatable without its sidecar of sweet apple seviche. The deserts are similarly cloying and sticky, although a couple of them (the passion-fruit-meringue pie and a towering, three-decker coconut flan) are compulsively edible. They're too rich to be eaten alone, so ask for extra spoons to share around the table. Or just forget about dessert entirely, order another Coco-Nana-Tini, then sit back and enjoy the show.

Jimmy's Downtown 400 East 57th Street (212-486-6400). Jimmy's Downtown, dinner, Monday through Sunday, 6 p.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $8 to $14; entrées, $22 to $28. All major credit cards.


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