1392 East Putnam Ave., Greenwich, (203) 698-9033
The homemade flatbread, warm, tender and charred by the grill, is the first indication there's good stuff going on in Bistro Latino's kitchen. The space formerly occupied by Greenwich Tavern has been revamped by chef-owner Rafael Palomino as a Spanish-Latin American restaurant. But the flatbread shouldn't be taken as an indication that this place is about bread alone. At Greenwich Tavern, the gluten-free and vegetarians can also enjoy a comfortable sense of indulgence.
And Bistro Latino is comfortable, with big tables and wide chairs, and lots of space and yes, that almost impossible thing to find in Fairfield County restaurants: quiet. You can hear what your dining companions are saying, and you can't hear what people are saying at the other table. The Latin music is background only, energetic but unintrusive. With its brown hues and dark wood, there's a masculine feel to the place, and the wall of wine is a reminder of the extensive international wine list. But we were feeling festive, so we started with cocktails — a refreshing chupa cabra, concocted of silver tequila, lime, cucumber, jalepeno, mint, and a splash of soda. There are four sangrias to choose from, and we tried the white wine-brandy and blood-orange liquer which strattled the border of sweet/not-too-sweet.
The six gluten-free tapas and two gluten-free main courses range from classic to creative. Potatoes, which are indeed gluten-free, play a strong role and come in varied forms, mashed, fried or roasted fingerings. The Spanish tortilla, a pan-fried cake of thinly sliced potato bound with a little egg is classic. Croquettes made from quinoa and asparagus are inventive, and appeal to those partial to mild flavors. Mussels Pamplona style are classic: steamed with chorizo and white wine and served with French fries. Tuna — seared Hawaiian yellow fin, with fingering potatoes and saffron aioli — is a fresh, contemporary version of a dish that a tapas bar in Spain would create from tuna preserved in a can or jar. Seviche, alas, is more concept than fish actually "cooked" by lime juice. (It's difficult for restaurants to make true seviche, but the name sure sounds good.) Shrimp, scallops and watermelon rested in a roasted sweet pepper-citrus sauce. Next time, I might ask if they could add a little hot pepper for a counterbalancing kick. A napoleon of salmon, with capers, shallots, and mustard-and-citrus vinaigrette layered between crisp waffled potatoes is pure and simple New American.
Quinoa replaces rice in the gluten-free paella rich with vegetables and sprinkled with toasted pine nuts. The pescatarian version, Paella Palomino, features lobster, mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp cooked over rice flavored with chorizo, saffron and sofrito. Gluten-free carnivores can tear into the churrasco con heuvo, a protein-rich grilled skirt steak topped with a fried egg, with roasted fingering potatoes on the side.
The staff is friendly, professional and ready to accommodate dietary requests. And that's good because many of the dishes use jamon Serrano, the Spanish cured ham, as a flavoring. Those restricted from eating it, can ask for the seared scallops (with arugula mashed potatoes and apple cider cava sauce) without the Serrano.
I eat ham, so I reveled in the imported Spanish charcuteria. Smoky, meaty cantimpalo flavored with rosemary, garlic and pimento. Nutty chorizo imperial, made from free-range black-footed pigs who feed on acorns. Peppery salchicho, drier, harder, like salami. And thin, tender slices of serrano. And cheese. Sharp manchego, sheep's milk aged one year. Tetilla, a milder cow's milk cheese from Galicia. And El Rebeco Valderon, a creamy blue made from the milk of cows and goats, which is wrapped in sycamore leaves.
The flatbread, "cocas," also appears on the menu as a Spanish pizza, a dish that calls out for sharing. Coca Vaquero is topped with skirt steak, valderon blue cheese, truffle & honey sauce. It's a smoky, meaty, cheesy and fortifying. And yes, of course there's a veggie coca, topped with shitakes, quinoa, arugula, manchego and chocolate balsamic glaze.
Diners often lament that small plates are more interesting than big ones. But my friends were delighted by their main courses, big portions of meat with intriguing accompaniments. Salmon is seared, then served over wild mushrooms and asparagus hash, the plate painted with pear-carrot sauce. Branzino, Mediterranean sea bass, is grilled, and accompanied by chorizo gnocchi, and a limey mojito sauce. Filet mignon comes with sweet potato gnocchi, with a wild mushroom-chimichurri sauce. The half-chicken is organic, roasted with herbs and served with mashed potatoes flavored with saffron.
Bistro Latino represents a return to Rafael Palomino's roots. After working with star chefs like Larry Forgione and Charlie Palmer at River Café in Brooklyn, N.Y., he stepped in to the stoplight with the neuvo Latino Sonora in mid-town Manhattan in 1999. (New York magazine said it was one of the best places to eat in New York.) Today, the restaurant operates in foodie-destination Port Chester, N.Y. New Havenites know Palmino's Pacifico, with its colorful décor and duck empanadas. He's also a proflic cookbook author, collaborating on Bistro Latino, Viva la Vida, Nueva Salsa, Fiesta Latina, and Latin Grill.