Sunday, May 18, 2008

Orinoco Will Drive You Loco (In More Ways Than One)

Orinoco, one of the South End’s well-kept secret dining destinations, is clandestine no more. The flagship’s popularity has skyrocketed to the point where extended waiting times have forced its owners to open a second location in the equally bustling, trendy college scene that has become Brookline Village (Harvard Street, to be exact). On its website, Orinoco’s owners claim that its restaurant’s origins were inspired by “’tagueritas,’ small casual rustic eateries found along Venezuelan roadsides.” This Venezuelan establishment’s claim to fame has not only stemmed from its uncanny ability to re-create this very ambience, but to offer a blend of Andes and Caribbean-inspired fare at an affordable price to its customers. Given his love of linguistics, Paul’s Palate discovered that the Orinoco itself is one of South America’s largest rivers. Would he find Orinoco’s ‘waters’ (more specifically, its fare) tranquil or choppy?

Orinoco’s atmosphere certainly has a lot going in its favor. The lively bar, for one, resides smack dab in its epicenter, and on a pleasantly warm spring night, it indeed feels as if we’ve inhabited one of those quaint tagueritas to which Orinoco’s website has alluded. On this particular evening, several chic-looking patrons bypass the booths and head directly for the bar. It’s no wonder why: the wine list consists of an extensive and diverse selection from Chile and Argentina and beers hail from exotic regions such as Brazil, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. And don’t you dare consider departing Orinoco without consuming one of its renowned mojitos (rum, lime, and crushed mint). Sure, it may take several minutes to prepare, but these are some of the tastiest, refreshing cocktails I’ve sampled in some time. I actually sip upon a cojito, which is infused with freshly-cut coconut slices. In addition, Orinoco scores points for its lively artwork, which includes authentic Caribbean masks and lively golden-splashed walls on which these decorations are displayed.

As for the rest of Orinoco’s surroundings, however, the ‘waters’ begin to muddy given some gaping flaws. For one, in contrast to the spacious bar, the remainder of the restaurant’s interior is rather small and inexcusably cramped. No more than eight to ten booths adorn the sides, while group-style tables (yes, eating with thy neighbor makes for slightly uncomfortable eating) account for the remainder. Reminiscent of the movie In The Line of Fire, I find myself frequently pressing my chair against the table in order to allow servers to pass by. I and my fellow diners also routinely resort to shouting given the extremely poor acoustics of the space.

Proceeding on to our food, appetizers are ample in size and more than moderate in taste. Although the empanadas (traditional Latin American turnover patties) are neither as flaky nor crispy as one would have expected from this Caribbean delicacy, they are flavorful. My sole complaint about the Mechada (filled with Venezuelan style shredded beef) is its surprising hollowness and lack of beef (which is excellent). My favorite empanada is the Verde: one might think that a diverse mix of ingredients including plantain dough, mushrooms, piquillo, manchego cheese, and salsa verde might lead to culinary overkill, but this combination works wonderfully. One eating companion raves about the arepas (traditional Venezuelan grilled corn pocket sandwiches), but I do not concur: I find the Guayanesa (filled with said creamy cheese) disappointingly bland, although it is spruced up by a zesty, mustard like sauce which accompanies it. In my mind, the most memorable starter of the evening by far are the datiles, show-stoppers which become instant mouth-poppers and consist of sweet dates encompassed by almonds and bacon.

As the evening progresses, the quality of Orinoco’s fare increases with it, as evidenced by the Principales (entrees). My wife’s churrasquito (grilled tenderloin) is cooked to a happy medium, and a perfect balance is struck between the salty-spiciness of the accompanying salsa chimi and the coolness of the crab picadillo. The asparagus that sits atop the strip of meat, however, seems extraneous. The dish would have benefited from being paired with a more traditional side such as beans or rice. I order my dish, the cordero, based upon hearsay that this is Orinoco’s signature dish. Picture this: panela-plantain-crusted lamb chops doused in a spicy mint mojo sauce. This mouth-watering concoction has me at ‘hola (hello).’ Similar to the churrasquito, I would have preferred a bolder side to compliment the succulent meat. The watercress blue cheese salad is a bit dull, and perhaps could have been substituted with a nice starchy substance (sweet plantains, perhaps?).

Dessert is memorable, though not unforgettable. The torta fluida (molten chocolate cake with 100 percent Venezuelan dark chocolate) certainly comes out hot and gooey. The chocolate itself is not overpoweringly sweet (that’s a good thing) considering that the Venezuelan variety is typically dark and bittersweet. When it comes to presentation, however, Orinoco’s torta does not ‘take the cake.’ I realize that Orinoco aims for casual simplicity, but serving a dessert in a disposable tin cup…Estais loco (are you crazy)?

Another glaring omission: despite Orinoco’s seemingly inviting atmosphere, one which appears to be conducive to both couples and families, there is not one single menu item from which to choose that would be appropriate for a child to consume. Our poor child is left to nibble on a couple of sweet plantains (and yes, we fortunately brought crackers as our backup).

For all its flaws (and there are several), however, Orinoco almost accounts for them all with its more-than-adequate service (our server is genial, prompt, and spot-on with her recommendations) and superior prices (appetizers between $6-$8?; entrees ranging from $13-$19?; desserts averaging a shade under $5? As Bart Simpson so eloquently stated, ‘Ay caramba!’). Would Paul’s Palate consider frequenting this local taguerita in the near future? Most likely not, unless he’s able to get his hands on one of those dreamy, yummy mojitos.