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Favorite Haunt

Seviche, merengue, mojitos -- they're a combination bound to give anyone's spirits a lift. And at Noche, they even manage to exorcise a few ghosts.

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It's Magic: David Copperfield's joint is transformed into Noche.  

When you get to Noche -- and you really should if you adore Latin dance music, even if it still hasn't gotten its cabaret license (doesn't anyone at the State Liquor Authority like to merengue?) -- this is what you should do: Order a round of mojitos the moment you get there. Even better, when you make your reservation, tell whomever you get on the phone that you want a round of mojitos waiting for you when you sit down. Because while Noche has a vast, cheerfully color-blocked room with enormous potential for roof-raising celebration, a ravishing sound system every nickel-and-dime club promoter in town should hear, crunchy empanadas filled with juicy ropa vieja, and several seductive seviches, this restaurant also has a history laced with more ghosts than the Amityville Horror if Topper moved in.

Consider the mojitos a liquid form of exorcism, erasing not just the lingering scent of his hair lacquer but any shadowy, matte-finished trace of David Copperfield, for whose multi-million-dollar, magic-themed restaurant David Rockwell originally designed this space. May the heady aroma of rum and mint obscure the specter of Mama Sbarro, the namesake of the emergency-room-lit pizza parlor that took over most of the ground floor when Copperfield's concept vanished. As a result, access to Noche's second-floor dining room is obtained by walking through a bar so architecturally disconnected from the rest of the place that you feel as though spirits had impishly teleported you to a Ninth Avenue happy hour.

And finally, here's hoping that all the sugar and lime race the cocktail through you so that you quickly forget that Noche is run and staffed by about 60 of the survivors of Windows on the World. Though it's true that restaurateur David Emil, consulting chef Michael Lomonaco, and executive chef Ramiro Jimenez were originally inspired by Windows' popular Thursday Latin nights, Noche was never meant as a living memorial. It wants you to focus on South America, not lower Manhattan.

It's not as if Noche isn't full of happy distractions. Chef Jimenez's seviche tasting platter is roughly equal in circumference to Marissa Jaret Winokur's teased 'do in Hairspray and almost as delightful, thanks to a salmon marinated in Amarillo peppers and passion fruit, merluza in ginger and black mint, and tuna in lots of cilantro and a splash of spicy avocado sauce (each can be had separately). The pico de gallo with crabmeat is as bright and friendly as a margarita. Soft-shell crab should be lighter, the flouring less mealy, but tamales, especially white corn with huitlacoche, have the right balance, inside and out.

The crackling roast suckling pig may divide your table; it's nasty to some, but to others, each bite echoes the sound of maracas. (Guess how I feel.) Regardless of your encampment, the meat itself is wonderfully garlicky yet sweet. Wood-roasted pork loin and braised short ribs are a bit more table-mannerly and equally good (except the loin suffers from erratic cooking, so be specific as to degree of doneness). And vegetables that accompany the latter -- sweet-corn arepa and bitter greens -- are spotlight stealers. Evidently, the paella Valenciana is an evolutionary tale. It was altered radically each of the five times I sampled it, finally nearing a happy ending, its saffron rice now gently appealing. Seared tuna with Serrano ham is less incongruous than it reads. Lobster curry is an appealing variation, though a trifle too sweet, and crispy snapper is a neat trick, smartly accessorized with green plantains. But the steamed merluza is even prettier, and its aroma of chilies, garlic, and lemon zest might be successfully bottled as Noche: The Fragrance.

South American desserts? Well, it's kind of like North American soccer: The skill is evident and everyone is trying his damnedest, but the busloads of adoring fans never quite arrive. Probably the most effortlessly likable are the caramelized-pineapple salad in mint and tamarind broth and the banana split with tropical fruit, no doubt a dish indigenous to Peruvians living near the Nazca lines.

Peruvians believe something supernatural created those must-be-seen-from-the-air carvings. Regardless of who did, they're amazing to behold. Just as no matter how Noche was conceived, it's the spirit you can taste, touch, feel, and smile at that will move you to dance.

Noche
• 1604 Broadway, near 49th Street (212-541-7070).
• Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.
• Appetizers, $7 to $12; entrées, $15 to $22. All major credit cards.


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