If it's true that we "eat with our eyes," then Mambo Cocina Latina is a true visual feast. The Nuevo Latino eatery on New Haven's State Street produces a bevy of Spanish, Caribbean and South American dishes, all vibrant in both color and flavor.
Take the tower of tuna tartare, layered with rosy raw fish and creamy green avocado and flanked by canary-yellow plantain chips. Seafood paella, bright with pink shrimp, saffron and green onion, can also be regally crowned with half a lobster. Vivid orange mango puree fills a glass of white wine-based sangria, dotted with crimson berries. Rich coconut flan is sheltered in an intricate shell of spun sugar.
Goodfellas Restaurant owner Gennaro "Gerry" Iannaccone and his sister Elena Fusco, who operates Bin 100 in Milford, opened Mambo in October. As they were more experienced with traditional Italian cuisine, they called upon chef Alex Morales, who'd built his career working for restaurateur Rafael Palomino (Pacifico, Bistro Latino in Old Greenwich.) Morales' menu pulls from several cultures for a complete tour of flavors.
"Our cuisine is influenced by Latin America and Spain. It's not fusion, it's just influenced; these flavors that are characteristic of Latin America, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Spain," said manager Michael Rodriguez. "All these Latin countries – we bring it together in a new style of presentation."
Diners will see "a little bit of everything" at Mambo, Rodriguez said, starting with instantly recognizable Mexican-inspired dishes like tableside guacamole with fresh avocados, chicken quesadillas and Baja fish tacos. Peruvian fish stew melds shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, yucca and tomato. Ropa vieja, a shredded braised beef with peppers, onion and saffron rice, has roots in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Cocas, a type of Catalan flatbread with a variety of vegetable and meat toppings, are popular starters.
Other dishes employ more non-specific influences: a braised short rib dish with Rioja wine sauce, mushrooms and saffron roasted garlic mashed potatoes; pollo relleno with roasted pepper, sweet plantain, queso fresco and a coconut-lemongrass sauce; peppercorn-crusted yellowfin tuna, coconut sweet plantain mash and pineapple salsa in a carrot reduction.
"We respect each culture and take those flavors, make it a new dish with a new colorful way to present it," Rodriguez said.
Seafood takes the spotlight at several turns, including a coconut lobster ceviche with grilled pineapple, lemongrass and red onion; and raw bar offerings of Blue Point oysters with mango cava mignonette, cocktail shrimp and littleneck clams. Crispy fried oysters, crab cakes, grilled octopus, garlic shrimp and mussels cooked in Corona beer round out the appetizers; and fried squid tops a salad with frisee, baby arugula, jicama, mango, radish, cashews and lime vinaigrette.
Rodriguez says Chef Morales, who captured the 2014 title of "Iron Chef Elm City" in a competition against chefs Frank Proto of Barcelona and Manuel Romero, formerly of Ibiza, has an "obsession" with keeping the menu fresh. He and his kitchen staff constantly introduce new plates and specials and change up preparations and ingredients so the food remains interesting.
Appetizers, salads, ceviches and raw bar items are $8 to $15; entrees are $19 to $29; cocktails are $10 and $11. Mambo also offers a daily prix-fixe menu, with three courses for $17 at lunch and $29 at dinner. Diners choose from a host of starters (soups, salads, empanadas, small plates); sandwiches and entrees and a variety of desserts.
Guests have come mainly for the food, but Mambo is trying to grow its bar scene, said Rodriguez, with a new weekday happy hour. In the same multicultural vein, Mambo's spirits span the globe, with tequila, rum, pisco and cachaca forming the base of colorful cocktails with fresh fruit purees.
Rodriguez says it can be challenging to open among "hundreds of restaurants" in New Haven's diverse dining scene, but says Mambo has enjoyed good feedback in its first year.
"People appreciate our flavors," he said. "You've got to bring something nice and attractive [to the scene.] We're doing something good and we have to keep going."
>>Mambo Cocina Latina, 758 State St., in New Haven, is open Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 10 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, noon to 11 p.m. Information: 203-562-0660 and mambococinalatina.com.