Unmarred Eats
[from February 2000 issue]

Unlike almost every other ethnic restaurant I know, Mar de Plata on 14th Street keeps its origins secret. At least, well-masked. There is no flashy decor suggestive of any particular country, no signs, paintings, wooden statues, travel posters, or mood music. In fact, the too-loud radio station sounds like a Bronx broadcast.

But the food is obviously Hispanic, more precisely: it is not Mexican, Salvadoran, nor Peruvian. It is Spanish--almost purely through and through.

Consider the lunch menu, for example. You'll find an interesting though curtailed tapas selection--hot and cold--that includes avocado with shrimp, marinated octopus, and ceviche mixto (certainly with its roots in Mexican kitchens), grilled sausage, and fried pork with cassava. A New World dish, the last is still a worthy menu entry and one that, though small (it is a tapas selection, after all), a succulent and artful combination of fried strips of yuca topped with a few non-oily fried pork cubes and nestled around a few strands of Salvadoran cole slaw. An appetite-whetter, this may well be the cornerstone of an all-tapas lunch splurge, for the entrées are certainly more expensive and heartier dishes.

But for real confirmation of the menu's Spanish ties, consider the paellas: If nothing else, the two different paellas suggest Spain, for paella in some form or another most often represents Spanish cooking to foreigners.

Then not content with just a rice-and-seafood or meat selection, the kitchen has devised other dishes with Spanish roots: jumbo shrimp with a tomato sauce; a zarzuela (a seafood casserole), another symbol of the Spanish kitchen; and a few meat and poultry dishes that could be Spanish, Mexican, or Italian: veal shank, grilled sirloin steak, and a stew of shredded flank steak with potatoes and rice.

The last is a lusty, slightly picante dish that focuses on a tomatoey sauce (the menu calls it a roasted vegetable sauce) in which the chef has carefully centered a large mound of rice before ladling in scoops of braised meat shreds and a few cubes of potatoes. It's not particularly glamorous, nor even probably worth a second glance if it is still in competition with the chiles rellenos entrée. If these are the Mexican-style stuffed chilies--that is, seeping and oozing with melted Monterey Jack cheese and coated in a crispy egg white shell and bathed ever so lightly in a tomato salsa--then these would be worth the trip from anywhere.

For the chef really is skilled, and his training shows brightest with the chocolate cake on the dessert menu. (All desserts are made in-house, affirms the waiter.) In fact, that's the dish that's really worth the trip. A triple-layer offering, it has a dense fudge-like base with an airier mousse middle layer, all of which is topped with a thin fudge "crust" and a sprinkling of cocoa powder. As a garnish: three perfect raspberries and three perfect blueberries.

The dinner menu, not surprisingly, is a slightly more ambitious affair, with the addition of an entire appetizer section (sardinas a la plancha, almejas a la marinara, stuffed piquillo peppers with shrimp) and a different paella, squid ink rice with seafood.

Even the meat and poultry entrées are enhanced with such choices as grilled beef rib with red pepper and white wine, grilled quail, and Cornish hens stuffed with meat and vegetables. All in all, a worthy menu, a competent chef, and friendly, though slow, service. Don't plan on a lunch-hour or pre-theater dinner here, unless you've got time to spare.

If you are looking for striking ambiance, you won't find it here. The central bar dominates the downstairs dining area; the music is too loud; and the tables are a bit crowded. But the open kitchen affords a good look at chefs in action and its tile-topped half-wall is "decorated" with cruets of olive oil, bottles of wine, a hunk of meat ready for slicing, and olives.

Mar de Plata, 1410 14th St.; 234-2676.Hours: Daily, except Mon., for lunch & dinner, 11:30am-midnight; Mon., dinner only, 6pm-midnight. Entrées $11.95 to $19.95. Major credit cards accepted

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