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Of all the fish stories, Pescado's happens to be true.
The cuisine offers the characteristic flavors of
the Caribbean and South America, with a bit of eccentricity;
a cooking that may seem complex but is authentic and never pretentious.
By Simone Zarmati Diament
I had the pleasure of returning to Pescado for the fourth time after it shed its skin as the Boston imported restaurant, which was the first to open at the Village of Merrick Park.
What was meant to be a New Englander's idea of Latin chic, has become in fact the real thing.
The looks have not changed; the garden dining patio with couches swathed in white and striped fabric with torches burning at night is still romantic. The huge bar, the dining room with booths and banquettes, the dim onion-shape lights are still stunning. The ambiance is still fun-filled and informal, and the service friendly and casual.
And if I had any concerns that Pescado might have lost a few scales, they have dissolved: the cuisine is better than ever.
Chef Sean Bernal, a Puerto Rico native and graduate of Johnson & Wales who made waves at Tambo in South Beach, and his sous-chef Roger Barrios, who formerly worked at Chef Allen's, are offering the characteristic flavors of the Caribbean and South America with a bit of eccentricity; a cooking that may seem complex but is authentic and never pretentious.
Their intention shows from the beginning with a bread basket filled with crusty, freshly baked country bread and a crock of black bean paste that is brought to the table as you peruse the menu.
The raw bar is inviting with oysters on the half-shell, yet ceviche is a good place to start. A large serving of Peruvian ceviche with plenty of thick chunks of white fleshed grouper slowly marinated in lime juice and celery salt, is lightly dressed with cilantro and a touch of heat from habanero pepper. It is smartly flanked by Peruvian choclo, giant sweet kernels of white corn, and delicious nutty-tasting crunchy cancha, the toasted kernels of the same corn.
Chef Bernal excels in ceviches and changes them often on his menu --on a previous occasion I had a Fanny Bay oyster ceviche served in an oyster shell over candied sweet potatoes. But this one was so refreshing that once you start eating it there is no stopping until the plate is emptied.
Tuna tartare is dramatically presented in a black triangular dish over green slivers of cucumber and topped with a crest of plantain chips. The diced sushi-quality tuna is seasoned with sesame oil, siracha pepper, cilantro and salt. Fiery but very tasty. The sweet fresh mango salsa protects you against the heat of the siracha.
Starters focus on seafood except for the trio of well-made empanada sampler with picadillo-style-shredded beef, guava and goat cheese, and spinach and Parmesan.
Jumbo shrimp are tender and flavorful under a crispy, light and airy tempura-like beer-batter seasoned with adobo. The golden shrimp is enhanced by a side of hearty guacamole studded with cherry tomatoes, and a crock of dark green dipping sauce, a sweet and fiery cilantro-jalapeño syrup.
Pescado's crab and lobster cake is a huge panko-breaded ball of shredded Maryland crab fried to a golden crisp. Less fortunate than the ceviche in its use of choclo kernels, and too busy with red and green pepper, tomato, scallion and too much adobo, it is served with a tasty salsa of kiwi and mango, dots of siracha pepper and passion fruit coulis.
The Caribbean mussels, which I had on previous occasions, are plump and fragrant in a coconut milk-curry broth.
Entrees are Pescado at its best
The day's special, Mango BBQ Mayan prawns, was startlingly good.
The giant prawns from Mexico, grilled with shells on to seal in their flavor, were glazed with a sweet and spicy reduction of mango and smoky chipotle. Crunchy and sweet fleshed, they rested on a fragrant cushion of coconut rice spiked with cilantro and peppers.
The house's signature is the Bahamas spice rubbed pan-seared yellowtail snapper. The familiar yellowtail is succulent and flaky, creamy-textured under its spicy rub, and makes a happy contrast with the surprisingly delicious bed of wilted spinach with ginger, garlic and sesame oil, but it is unbalanced by the sea of fish fumé with passion fruit and Scotch Bonnet that lines the plate.
Talking of balance, the miso-marinated Sea Bass is an amazing Latin rendition of Asian cooking. The thick, pearly-fleshed pavé of fish, is pan-seared to perfection, moist and flaky, and is perfectly accompanied by a nest of sesame noodle salad dressed in rice vinegar and sweet soy, tossed with a julienne of zucchini, cilantro and scallions, and topped with red cabbage.
On the menu, there is a wonderful version of sweet, plump and juicy diver scallops seared to perfection, delicate in taste and texture and served with coconut rice and vanilla-ginger-rum butter sauce; a lightly seared coriander-crusted tuna with Cuban-style chorizo stew and crispy yams; and Atlantic Salmon in a Peruvian seafood stew of clams, mussels and yucca, topped with roasted pepper salad.
Meats and fowl also a Fiesta
Although seafood is the main attraction, Chef Bernal is doing a great job with meats and fowl. He likes to flirt with spices and has an inner compass when it comes to textures even when he dares play with classics such as duck magret or steak.
Tamarind chile-glazed duck magret is pan-seared to a crisp skin and its earthy, tender fork dark meat is set over a sweet plantain fufú tempered with pico de gallo. Guava-marinated chicken is grilled and served with yucca fries and grilled broccolini.
The grilled, 12-ounce Churrasco steak is done to order, juice-dripping under its crust, with a sweet plantain fufu absorbing the rivulets of meat juice meeting pineapple salsa and rosemary jus. Grilled New Zealand lamb and filet mignon are my next items to try on the menu.
Desserts, unpretentious and satisying
Among the few choices the best are Crème brûlée, which is superbly made at Pescado: smooth, creamy and perfectly textured under a thin frost of caramelized sugar; the dense chocolate Jamaican rum cake moist with amaretto and drizzled with a dark chocolate swirl. The light, not too sweet lava cake oozes dark, warm chocolate cooled by a tres leches ice cream and drizzled with coconut rum sauce.
Of all the fish stories, Pescado's happens to be true.