I’m not usually one to impose, but I need you to do me a favor. Not a big one, really. Nothing painful. You needn’t lift a great weight or watch Tina Brown’s talk show. Nor will it cost you anything—you have to eat anyway, right? In fact, I promise you’re going to thank me. It’s this simple: If you’re mad for Mexican cuisine, I want you to go somewhere where the food is exceptionally fine, even conversation-stopping. The catch? At times, the place is so quiet there isn’t always a lot of conversation to grind to a halt.
Pampano is the newest venture of talented chef-owner Richard Sandoval, whose restaurant Maya—with its slyly inventive cuisine and electric atmosphere—is still, even six years into its run, operating on the premise that it’s Cinco de Mayo every day. Since there must have been streamers in the air the night they invented Mexican food, one can hardly call that overreaching: Neither the smoky warmth of mole nor that innocent-looking chili pepper that can make you see the face of God were ever meant to be eaten without merriment or margaritas.
French food can be moody. It can be served with white gloves sans irony. And few will snicker when spying an Italian kitchen filled with serious-looking toques. But Mexican food resists movin’ on up. It’s not that the cooking isn’t worthy. On the contrary, Pampano’s red-snapper picadillo with Oaxaca cheese and crema fresca may be the most delicious quesadilla in town. After feverishly devouring Sandoval’s mussels, everyone at the table passed around the remaining chipotle broth with tomato and cilantro, guzzling it like soup. Calamari boasted a gutsy blue-cornmeal crust complemented by a tamarind vinaigrette. Smoked swordfish went as quickly as peanuts at a beer blast. Sandoval’s lobster tacos could supplant blinis and caviar if he could find an adventurous distributor. Plump shrimp empanadas, fried dark as copper, get heat from adobo and sweetness from pineapple. And a tamal of wild mushroom and zucchini blossoms in chipotle-lobster sauce may be the perfect decoy for attracting attention away from anyone rightfully hoarding salmon-and-orange or tuna-with-tomatillo seviche. And these are just the appetizers.
So what’s the problem? Food that makes folks this giddy deserves festive surroundings. But owing to an admirable and understandable desire to create a more “worthy” atmosphere, Pampano has gone all-out—in beige. Yet, as lovely as the upstairs room is, with its beautifully crafted iron railings, impressive tropical reliefs on the wall, and sultry rotating fans, it radiates less energy than the Kate Jackson fan club. An aura of tranquility makes you want to behave, and pass up that second (or third) tequila.
Nevertheless, it takes little more than a taste of Pampano’s seafood sausage in black-bean soup, goat cheese in a stuffed Anaheim pepper, or parsnip and rajas gratin to make one want to dance on a table. The exciting flavors embedded in grilled skirt steak in tomato and chile de arbol salsa, in sautéed pompano with plantain, or in gorgeously lush seafood stew should have diners swooning, not daintily dabbing the corners of their mouths with a napkin.
I want to douse Pampano in vermilion paint, throw confetti from its balcony (where you can dine and smoke, by the way), goose its wait staff into smiling more instead of being so concerned about reciting ingredients, and ship Maya’s seductive hostess, Sulima, to Pampano for a stay. And I need you to show up ready to enjoy yourselves. A restaurant that can bring a meal to a close with such luxuriant warm corn cake or lemon soufflé with a zippy raspberry salsa should be collecting rapturous hugs and kisses instead of searching for polite bows of gratitude. You can save the latter for when it’s time to thank me.
Some rooms confound you. Others are there to aspire to. Upon moving back to the city after college, I put my meager cash resources into the Bowery Savings Bank simply because I adored walking into its two magnificently overbearing interiors, knowing a marbled piece of Stanford White grandeur was mine. Grandeur, however, like people, rarely ages with flexibility. The Ciprianis have turned the bank’s former 42nd Street branch into a cacophonous cow palace with food fit for a debtor. But Capitale transforms the Grand Street location with such sophisticated aplomb you may want to run home and throw on a tux just because the place deserves it. And yet, for all its cavernous opulence, Capitale is unimposingly, almost cozily entertaining. It reduces tables of nine to intimate circles, it skews its luxury of space toward the romantic, and its acoustics are an astonishingly comforting relief.
So is chef Franklin Becker’s food. Previously lost at Local—a restaurant as bizarrely designed as the Wachowski brothers’ wardrobe—Becker handsomely succeeds by not succumbing to portentousness. Instead, his flavors are often arrestingly clear. A salad of shoots and roots brashly takes on a green-onion crisp and pink-peppercorn vinaigrette. Succulent red shrimp are paired with chorizo and lentils. Borscht is as dense as an empress’s velvet cloak; escabèche is sparked by black cumin and Peruvian chili. He arms scallops, with the aid of black truffles, to stand up to smoked pork belly. Pan-roasted bison boasts a necklace of chocolate oil. Becker can afford to make his flavors a bit bigger, like his indulgent butter-poached lobster, and like pastry chef John Lee’s apricot brioche French toast or pink-peppercorned Meyer-lemon custard. The room can handle a bit more panache. So can we. In a city being nickel-and-dimed into pettiness and rancor, Capitale reminds us of how seldom we lately seem to be having big fun.