Zarela Turns Down the Heat At New Murray Hill Cantina

Looking every bit the bombshell in a low-cut black dress and

sexy high heels with ankle straps, Zarela Martinez

was greeting customers at the door when I arrived at Danzón.

Her new restaurant, which she owns with her daughter, Marissa Sánchez, is named after a popular ballroom dance of Cuban

origin and serves the cuisine of Vera-cruz,

Mexico. It isn’t hard to

imagine Ms. Martinez (who also owns Zarela in

midtown) holding court in one of the grand old cafés of Veracruz,

where ceiling fans lazily whir in the tropical heat and French doors are open

onto a porticoed zócalo

(main square) throbbing with mariachi bands.

Danzón’s setting-two floors of a

prim, narrow building in Murray Hill-is sedate by comparison, but the mood is

not. The downstairs bar is thronged with young women in low-rise jeans and spangly tops, knocking back margaritas. The second floor is

divided into small, bright dining rooms, painted a warm peach with mustard trim

and hung with chandeliers. Pressed-tin candle holders decorate the tables, and

a white satin high-heeled dance shoe filled with fruit hangs in the front

window. Throughout the restaurant, the walls are decorated with old-fashioned

dancing shoes and carved figurines of dancers arranged on shelves in folkloric

wooden frames. The effect is both whimsical and comic.

The cooking of Veracruz,

a skinny strip of land between mountains and the Gulf of Mexico,

is a melting pot of Mexican, Spanish and Afro-Cuban cultures. The waitress at Danzón explains it all in a well-rehearsed speech as she

hands you the menu. And as if to press home the point, a busboy-sporting a

shirt with a small guitar printed on the chest pocket-sets

down a plate of fried plantains with a spicy peanut dipping sauce instead of

the usual guacamole and chips.

We tried, without success, not to finish off the plantains

and spoil our appetites, and signaled our waitress so we could order dinner.

“In Veracruz,

if you want something, you tap your glass,” said one of my guests, who had

spent time there a few years ago. The custom (which we did not observe) began, it seems, in La Parroquia,

a famous café where the coffee is served in glasses. A trolley conductor always

rang the bell when he approached to tell the waiters to have his coffee ready.

On the day he died, the proprietor supplied the usual signal instead by tapping

on his glass, and all the customers followed suit in the conductor’s memory.

I learned the background of the glass-tapping tradition from

Ms. Martinez’s new cookbook, Zarela’s Veracruz (Houghton Mifflin

Company), which traces the development of the region’s cuisine and gives

recipes for many of the dishes served at Danzón. The

food is tropical and lively, getting a Mediterranean accent from capers,

almonds, olives and olive oil, with African and Cuban influences in the form of

peanuts, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and plantains. Jalapeños are used, but

sparingly; the cuisine emphasizes herbs more than spices. The recipes in the

cookbook look terrific. The trouble with the food at Danzón,

however, is that it’s uneven, and the dishes are often surprisingly bland. Some

of the best things I tried were specials of the day: thick, juicy slices of

heirloom tomatoes in an unusual pairing with onions and figs, and a sizzling

plate of perfectly cooked fried anchovies, served with a garlicky aioli.

Seafood is the glory of the cooking of Veracruz, which is riddled with

lakes, bays, lagoons and tidal swamps, so you’d expect it to be the glory of Danzón, too. The region’s most famous dish is red snapper a

la Veracruzana, baked whole with green olives,

tomatoes, capers and pickled jalapeños. But here it was a tad overcooked, and

the sauce could have been more assertive. Arroz a la tumbada, a Mexican paella with shrimp, squid, crab and

mussels, was also bland and overcooked.

On the other hand, conch-paper-thin slices marinated in lime

juice with red onion and habañero chilies-was superb,

as were the fresh sardines grilled plain and served with lime, and pulpo a las brasas,

grilled octopus with serrano chilies and sliced

onions.

Dishes are often marred by a detail. Chicken en mora was a wonderful combination, shredded and cooked in

blackberry liqueur with onions, toasted almonds and green olives, but it was

spoiled by the greasy buñuelos (fried doughnuts) that

came with it. Tamal de cazuela,

corn masa (dough) baked in a casserole with a filling

of shredded pork and chilies sprinkled with hoja santa (an herb with a rich, anise-like scent), would have

been good if it hadn’t been for the stringy meat. On the other hand, fried

broccoli patties came with a light tomato sauce that perfectly complemented

their delicate flavor without overwhelming it. I also liked the picadas, two light, crimped corn tortillas, one filled with

avocado and tomatillo sauce and topped with crumbled queso fresco, the other with spicy tomato sauce.

Roast half duck was served with a sauce similar to that of

the snapper, with the addition of dry sherry, which cut the richness of the

duck nicely. But carne de chango, smoked pork loin

marinated in lime and orange juice and served with corn and green plantain

tortillas, came out very dry.

Ms. Martinez has a short wine list made up entirely of

selections from Baja California

and Spain. The

prices are reasonable, and it is worth being adventurous. (One evening, the

waiter cheerfully exchanged a bottle that we didn’t like for a different kind

when he saw we didn’t like it, even though it was not spoiled.)

Desserts are mixed. Avoid the greasy buñuelos

and the gummy flan and have instead the pastel de coco, an orange-flavored

coconut cake that belongs in a repertoire from the 50’s, served with pineapple

salsa and mango sauce and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The chocolate soufflé

is excellent, as is the flourless bittersweet chocolate cake filled with

coconut cream on a pool of chocolate sauce.

At Carnival time, it’s a tradition for the naval band to

play for the Danzón. My dinner companion said that

when he stayed in Veracruz,

he shared a hotel room with a colleague overlooking the parade ground of the

Mexican naval academy. His friend was extremely short, as was the cadets’

commanding officer. When the cadets convened for their morning assembly,

marching to an off-key band, the friend would crack them up by standing on the

balcony behind the officer, mimicking his gestures like Chaplin doing Hitler.

Like Veracruz

itself, Danzón has an exuberance that sweeps you

along. When the kitchen is not off-key, eating here is an adventure.

Danzón

126 East 28th Street

(between Park and Lexington)

252-1345

dress: Casual

noise level: High

wine list: Interesting, short list

from Baja California and Spain

credit cards: All major

price range: Main courses, lunch,

$12 to $18; dinner, $15 to $21

lunch: Monday to Friday,

noon

to 3 p.m.

dinner: Monday to Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday to 11:30 p.m.

            [                       good

            [ [                     very

good

            [ [ [                  excellent

            [ [ [ [                outstanding

            no star  poor