Dinner at Esperanto
Friday, March 12, 2010 at 8:25AM
The Lady Who Lunches in Restaurant reviews

*All of my photos from this meal can be viewed on Flickr

With it's painfully out-of-reach location (on the outskirts of Alphabet City), I often forget to think of/mention Esperanto when trying to decide where to eat in the East Village, or while recommending a restaurant to others.  Once there, however, I am pleasantly reminded of the hidden jewel that lurks on the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C.

Jean and I met at Esperanto around 7pm on Wednesday evening and were seated immediately.  We were promptly served glasses of ice water and a basket of sliced bread with dipping oil (infused with black and pink pepper-corns, cumin, garlic, red chili seeds, salt, and a bouquet of other spices), before being told about two of the evening's special cocktails: passion-fruit margarita and a strawberry-basil mojito.  Knowing that we each wanted to taste both of these beverages, Jean ordered the mojito and I chose the margarita.

Esperanto: an interior shotA cozy booth that was just to our left

Slice of bread schmeared with Esperanto's homemade infused dipping oilPassion-fruit margarita on-the-rocks: perfect balance of sweet, tang and punchWhile sipping on our tropical cocktails, Jean and I perused the dinner menu and came to a couple of mutual decisions (as mutual as could be...Jean is a pescatarian).  For appetizers, we decided to split: roasted corn, pao de queijo, and the Crab En Banana Leaf. 

For some reason, I imagined that the roasted corn appetizer would be similar to the giant-sized kernels that I enjoyed so much while traveling through Peru and Ecuador (click *here* for a visual).  What we were actually served was a halved roasted corn cob that was plated atop a shallow pool of basil vinaigrette.  Although this is not what I had envisioned, I found that I enjoyed the unfamiliar combination of the smoky, roasted corn kernels and the tangy vinaigrette.

Roasted corn Pao de Queijo, which is Portuguese for "cheese bread," gets its soft, unique, and doughy texture  from cassava flour (instead of being made with wheat flour).  The only other ingredients that make up this special bread are: cheese, eggs, oil and milk.

Pao de Queijo: note how moist and doughy the interior is. Yum!The Crab en Banana Leaf was my least favorite of our three appetizers.  While the presentation was beautiful, I was ultimately underwhelmed by this dish.  A large plate arrived containing: a halved lime, banana leaf-wrapped "purse," and a small bowl filled with plantain chips.  Jean carefully unwrapped the leaves, which divulged a tamale-shaped mound of lump crab meat that had been cooked with peppers, tomatoes and coconut milk.  Had the meat been more fresh (was it canned?), I am confident that this dish would have tasted just as exotic and fantastic as it looked.

Crab en Banana LeafCrab en Banana Leaf: what lurks beneath the leafBy this point in the meal, I was neither disappointed nor wowed by the food that we had been served thus far; everything, aside from the pao de queijo and my margarita, was just "OK."

After a considerable amount of time had passed since finishing our appetizers, the entrees finally arrived.  I ordered the Carne Asada skirt steak, cooked medium-rare.  The beef was accompanied by white rice, black beans, a pico-de-gallo-style of salsa called "chimayo," and guacamole.  In addition, I requested a side of Chimichurri sauce that I had planned to pour over the steak.

(My god, I'm literally drooling as I write this!)  Crappy appetizers be damned!  My Carne Asada skirt steak was the best piece of beef I've had in recent memory: perfectly charred on the outside, giving way to a rich, pink interior - cooked to a pristine medium-rare, which was made even more flavorful and delicious with the subtle addition of Chimichurri sauce.  The meat was so tender and relaxed - almost as if it had been massaged - that I was able to cut individual bites of the Carne Asada with my fork.  While I didn't focus too heavily on the accompanying rice and beans, the guacamole was some of the most robust and hearty that I've had in all of my six years in NYC.

Carne Asada skirt steak plate: beef, white rice, black beans, guacamole, chimayo salsaCarne Asada skirt steak plate: a close-up, topped with Chimichurri sauceI'm not sure how we managed, but Jean and I didn't even think twice about not ordering desserts.  While the Coconut Flan got her attention, I was instantly drawn to the Passion-fruit Mousse.  Served in a bowl similar to a creme brulee ramekin (or even a French onion soup crock) the dull, peach-colored mousse was silky, tangy, bursting with passion-fruit flavor, and pudding-like in smoothness/lemon curd-like in texture. 

Just as we were midway through our desserts, a sexy live band began to play in the front room.  I was just as happy and relaxed as those people in the Corona commercials on TV; everything about Esperanto was truly transporting - a tropical escape - if only for a couple of hours.    

Passion-fruit MousseIn conclusion: Esperanto, though located in Bumble-Fcuk, is, without a doubt, a destination-worthy South American restaurant.  I hate to say it, but I blame Jean, my adorable little pescatarian dinner date, for our less-than-stellar appetizers (I can't tell you HOW BAD I wanted those beef empanadas, or the Chayotte Salad that our waitress recommended!).  Aside from this, and a couple of slow-service glitches, our meal was absolutely fantastic and definitely one of the best, most affordable dinners that I've had in this New Year.  My advice to you?  Put Esperanto on your map; trust me, you'll be very glad you did.

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