First Look: Spanish Harlem

Cool Caribbean on Edgewood Avenue

God, I love restaurants that disrupt cultural clichés. As soon as I was old enough to drive, I started exploring the city in search of them. They really were my way of escaping the strangulating monotony and whiteness of Sandy Springs where — no kidding — there were only two restaurants on Roswell Road when we moved there.

Maybe that's why the adventure of dining has always been nearly as important to me as the food itself. This is regarded as a no-no by many critics and I've frequently been put in my place with comments like "I am writing about food, not experience" or "I'm a critic, not a storyteller." Good for you.

But when I go to a restaurant like the new Spanish Harlem (262 Edgewood Ave., 404-420-0077) — it's true — I'm captivated, even if I know I can find better Latin American food somewhere else. The restaurant just opened directly across from the Sweet Auburn Curb Market in the Old Fourth Ward. So my visit was during its soft opening and the menu is likely to change somewhat.

The location has been vacant for a while, having opened as the Harlem Bar in 2006. Then, it specialized in soul food with a citified vibe. It called itself "sexy, stylish and soulful." That's not my usual just-out-of-the-gym look, but it was fun to watch the other sexy, stylish and soulful patrons.

I was sorry when it closed but was equally entranced by its owners' other venue, Rare, which opened that same year, serving soul-food tapas in one of the city's coolest environments. And damned if it didn't close, too, for a couple of years after it burned in 2008. It was rebuilt to almost its exact former look, but the quality of the food dipped significantly and the vibe has never resumed its feel of mellow improv.

What's so cool about Spanish Harlem? The décor, for starters. It draws on the pervasive Catholic imagery of Latin America. In some places it's explicit, like a line of those tacky illustrated devotional candles. Elsewhere, it's abstracted, like a gigantic color-changing cross behind the equally colorful tile bar.

What's this all about? Were we going to hear gospel tunes? Was our server Chris going to testify? He promised not and said the imagery was simply referential. I looked skeptical. "No, really," he said. "I'm agnostic myself." And, he told us, if we thought this was religious, we should pay a visit to Sister Louisa's Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium at the other end of Edgewood. (We laughed and we did; more about that another time.)

Chef of the new restaurant is Freddy Perez, who was last at Purple Rain in Duluth. He is Puerto Rican and his menu is mainly Caribbean-inspired — as a gigantic mural on one wall indicates. I dined there twice — once with Wayne and once alone. My response was mainly good. Perez's version of papas rellenas is one of the best I've encountered. Instead of the usual croquette style, he prepares a single mass of fluffy mashed potatoes over a bed of seasoned ground beef, deep fried with a panko exterior. Cold roasted red peppers are on the side with some cilantro, a surprisingly good condiment for the dish. Warning: When I ordered this, I ate the whole thing and I could not come close to finishing my entrée.

Just as good, but more manageable, was a goblet of ceviche mainly made with shrimp in a lemon-lime-cilantro vinaigrette with a strong shot of cumin. A third appetizer, coconut-fried shrimp, was also a large portion. It was the one dish at the restaurant I disliked. Actually, I never like it anywhere and now I know I especially dislike it with something called "curry ketchup." All I can say is that the shrimp were well-fried.

I've sampled three entrées — the pan-seared pork chops, stewed chicken and pastelón. The latter is a classic Puerto Rican dish that I've never had before. It's basically lasagna that replaces the usual pasta with sweet plantains. They are layered with ground beef and "tropical cheese." I liked it, although the plantains were cut so thick that it was almost impossible to get the other ingredients on the fork at the same time.

I just took a couple of bites of Wayne's thin, seared pork chops topped with caramelized onions. Tasty and, at $10, a bargain, like all of the food. My favorite entrée was chicken stewed with carrots and potatoes served in a bowl of curative-quality broth. One problem: I wanted to shovel my side of rice into the bowl, but there was very little of it and, honestly, it was way overcooked. So I ate some of it with its accompanying red beans. I was also talked into a huge serving of fried sweet plantains, which I managed to eat. As I said, don't even think of ordering a lot of dishes here unless you're sharing.

I've sampled one dessert — custardy, raisin-filled bread pudding, served with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. It's another huge serving appropriate for two and inappropriate for one. Who cares about being appropriate?

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