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New England Regional

Venezuelan Delights

A lively Brookline restaurant draws a crowd.

July-August 2010

Tangy greens with bacon-wrapped dates

Tangy greens with bacon-wrapped dates

Anthony Tieuli

The ambience at Orinoco is festive.

The ambience at Orinoco is festive.

Anthony Tieuli

Orinoco’s pleasures include tuna carpaccio.

Orinoco’s pleasures include tuna carpaccio.

Anthony Tieuli

Orinoco: A Latin Kitchen, one of the few Venezuelan restaurants in Greater Boston, offers carefully tended, bold food in a lively setting. Regulars talk and eat at the bar, where bottles line the storefront windows painted with a pretty filigree edging, and the barkeep casually takes your order.

Dim overhead lights dangling in glass globes and warm ochre walls offer a sensual ambience. We recommend eating on the early side if you want to avoid a longish wait (they don’t take reservations) and too much noisy chatter, although the latter unquestionably contributes to Orinoco’s vibrancy.

Even if you do have to hang out for a table and raise your voice to be heard, the food is definitely worth it, and a good introduction to a cuisine unfamiliar to many Bostonians. Starting with the trio of empanadas ($8)--fish, beef, and black beans wrapped in light, fried dough--our dinner was simply delicious. The turnovers were fresh and not oily; the beans had a smoky depth, and the shredded meat a juicy tomato taste all the zestier when dipped in the garlicky, citrus mojo sauce. The perfect follow-up was the palmito salad ($8), delicately dressed in a Spanish artisanal cabrales cheese vinaigrette. Smooth hearts of palm were tossed with greens, jicama slices (a nice crunch), and plenty of bacon-wrapped dates and almonds--which also come as their own dish, if you like that salty-sweet-nutty combination. And who doesn’t?

The traditional grilled dish parrilla caraqueña ($19) arrived on a narrow bamboo platter, but there was plenty to eat: five ounces of strip steak, marinated chicken, half a chorizo, guasacaca (avocado salsa), and yucca frite. Cut in trapezoidal chunks, the fleshy yucca tasted rather like roasted chestnut and was surprisingly tender--almost the best part of the entrée. We also savored slowly the cordero tradicional: pistachio-plaintain crusted New Zealand lamb chops--so succulent--with mint sauce and a small arugula and blue cheese salad ($19). A mound of grilled grape tomatoes added a needed acidic touch.

Orinico has only two desserts; we had both. The quesillo ($4.25) is a Venezuelan custard, like crème caramel but denser and drier. Don’t expect a gelatinous flan. We enjoyed it, though it seemed a bit of a clunky finish. The more stylish torta fluida ($5), a molten Venezuelan chocolate cake cooked in a foil cup, was as rich as you’d want and satisfied our craving for something on the verge of bittersweet.

Orinoco is not a place for terribly shy palates--or people. It is a social spot. One bilingual man next to us, a frequent diner, told us of his favorite Latin American dishes, then even wrote down detailed instructions on how to properly prepare the ubiquitous tostones (offered as a side dish at Orinoco). This thick, crispy snack food is made from twice-fried unripe plantains, which require kneading, peeling, and smashing before they become soft enough to cook. You can eat them with salt, Tabasco, or mojo. Or, “for the loving adults,” as this new friend made clear, serve them topped with crème fraîche and caviar alongside a glass of champagne.

That’s what we’ll have next time.

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