Cafe Atlantico, Washington, D.C.

| From Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

If Roberto Alvarez has not achieved the perfect balance of all that is Latin American, he has come as close as anyone in the nation's capital. The philosophy is pretty concise. "The raison d'être is the food," Alvarez explains. "Then you have the wines.

The cigar is the signature touch of the restaurant. It's the envelope into which you put everything."

At Cafe Atlantico, Alvarez, a native of the Dominican Republic, has combined the nuevo Latino cuisine of chef Jose Andres--a Barcelonan whom Wine Spectator has included among its rising stars--the classic libations of Latin America and the Caribbean, including a prodigious selection of rums and tequilas, and Dominican cigars from León Jimenes Cigars. Alvarez is even tackling the cumbersome regulatory process of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to get a license to roll cigars in the restaurant.

Appetizers are a signal to diners that they are in for something different. The tuna ceviche, moistened with coconut milk and dressed with sweet potato chips and roasted corn nuts, instantly alerts palates to bold flavor combinations. A more delicate taste comes in the Ecuadorian seared scallops with crispy coconut black rice and fresh squid. If you find it a bit tame, add a squeeze of lime.

When the entrées arrive, the real magic of the evening starts. A salmon "paw paw," draped with papaya and Peruvian blue potatoes and a papaya-lime oil, elicits the observation that Cafe Atlantico is "very celebratory." Seared mushrooms with crab-and-corn stew, with a coco-ginger broth and fried yuca (cassava), should be ordered with the fresh Maine lobster for an extra five dollars. The fried yuca and the crab form bite-size fritters.

A "Calle Ocho" Cubano sirloin is--along with the Brazilian feijao--the closest thing to comfort food on the menu. The beef is Argentine and rich to the point of being sweet. The steak sits in a purée of malanga, a root vegetable, and is spiked with malanga chips and sauced with tamarind.

The hit of the evening could easily be an entrée called Mole Negro. It's a pork chop in a traditional Mexican mole sauce accompanied by a plantain cake.

Alvarez is proud of Cafe Atlantico's wine list, which concentrates on wines from South America. A 1993 Navarro Correas Malbec from Argentina proved a bit softer than hoped for with the food, but there are plenty of Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots from which to choose.

Save room for some notable desserts. The tres leches is a coconut flan with a coconut sauce, and the banana chocolate bread pudding entices those at other tables who have yet to receive their entrées. But the class of the dessert list is the cuatro manzanas. This is a roasted apple mousse with apple crisps and sautéed apples in an Argentine Malbec cider sauce.

A dark rum at the end of the evening will help you savor your cigar. And help you understand why Cafe Atlantico is a special change of pace. --Alejandro Bene

Alejandro Benes is a writer and business executive in Washington, D.C.

Cafe Atlantico
405 8th Street, NW
Phone (202) 393-0812
Dinner about $45 per person, with wine