Even the roof on this converted bungalow entices with a come-hither angle. It reminds me of the cocky tilt at which Warren Beatty would wear a hat in his prime. Something juicy must be going on inside.
When you walk in the door, the spatter of color and sassy rhythms overhead quickly gives away the cuisine: Latin. Or, to be more specific, "creative American with Latin influences." That's the description that rolls off the tongue of every server I encounter. It's a self-important catch phrase that would have me worried about the food if I didn't know the impeccable creds of the folks behind this venture.
Sia Moshk, who owns the celebrated Sia's in Duluth, and his executive chef, Scott Serpas, have brought their restaurant savvy inside the Perimeter. Mitra is just entering its third month of existence. And judging from how packed the place is, the Midtown crowds are eating it up.
It's hard to resist the draw. Mitra is the bright spot on a block of Juniper Street between Fifth and Sixth that has become a restaurant quagmire. The buildings that once housed Cavu and Orange & Scarlett's have yet to find new occupants. Next door to Mitra is Mu Lan. It models a stirring, clandestine dining room but serves utterly forgettable Chinese fare. Spice, across the street, is beginning to feel like a relic of the flush Clinton era.
Mitra, however, is clearly in bloom. Walls of rich red and orange suggest ripe tropical fruits. Starburst chandeliers and curvaceous Botero images keep the eyes entertained. It's a clamorous room. When the weather turns warm, I'm sure they'll open the garage-door windows to let the noise flow out onto the patio.
Having all the cuisines of Latin America to draw upon gives Serpas and his chef de cuisine Gerardo Ramos a daunting amount of topography to explore. Their starting menu, however, doesn't wander too far from familiar territory: Calamari, mussels, fried oysters, roasted chicken and the like all get tickled with chilies and other zesty fillips. Calamari is presented in a cone gizmo usually reserved for French fries. It's an above-average rendering; the fried rings are tender and tossed in warm aioli with an edge of sweetness. Feel free to remove the superfluous fried basil leaves that garnish the dish. A blue crab cake, bound with a bit of masa harina, is both fetching and zippy from capers, scallions and herbs.
Both the calamari and blue crab cake are commendable, but the app that deserves cult status is the lamb taquitos. Saucy lamb is blended with cabrales blue cheese, toasted almonds and raisins, then nestled between two curly red tortilla chips. Each bite is a treatise of contrasts: The smooth, diplike consistency of the lamb mixture against the shattering chip wows the palate, and the earthiness of the meat melds sensuously with the funk of the cheese and the raisin's insistently sunny disposition. Ay, por Dios! I could polish off three plates of these babies all by my lonesome.
The kitchen most succeeds when it executes unfussy, focused ideas. "Pull-apart pig," a quirky but apt name for meltingly supple roasted pork, is served over a bed of welcomingly unadulterated mashed potatoes. It's robed with a vibrant mojo reduction that's like a thin barbecue sauce with a garlicky citrus kick. I've had mostly good luck with fish: banana leaf roasted snapper is moist and kicky from its escabeche marinade. A special of wild striped bass, served with a collage of roasted vegetables, is properly austere. It lets the freshness of the fish speak for itself.
Things get dicey when the dishes get cheffy (i.e., overwrought). Roasted mahi mahi gets lost in a showy pageantry of accoutrement. The cheese and vegetable enchilada doesn't complement the fish at all. Pungent chimichurri sauce is a classic Argentine pairing for steak. Unfortunately, this skirt steak is chewy and the yucca fries underneath are tough and lukewarm.
I'm an easy target for seafood paella, but the night I try Mitra's, the rice is so salty I can only manage a few mouthfuls. Discouraging.
Pastry chef Ann Marie Kenney has skillfully crafted her sweets to match the tone of the savory offerings. Clear notes of vanilla and lemon save the white chocolate caramel cheesecake from being cloying. There's just the right amount of cinnamon in the chocolate lava cake to give it a fresh, jaunty twist. Skip the taut, rubbery coffee flan for the bread pudding encrusted with coconut and glazed with tamarind.
Speaking of sweet, the restaurant's house sangria tastes like spiked Hi-C. Sangria needs a dusky note under all the fruitiness. Better to stick with a wine from the interesting, inexpensive list compiled by local wine guru Anita LaRaia.
Mitra is young, and if the food missteps here and there, it's hard to hold a grudge. So much of it already delivers. This is one of those restaurants that I innately trust to improve as it matures. In a stretch of Midtown that is sorely lacking in destination restaurants, here's hoping that Mitra's seductive ways will usher in an era of solid new dining choices.
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