Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Domingo Takes Two:

South of the Border Style

Plácido Domingo didn’t have much success with his eponymous midtown restaurant, which served Spanish cuisine. So six months ago he teamed up with Richard Sandoval, the chef of Maya, and re-opened as Pampano, whose Mexican menu consists primarily of seafood from the Veracruz region. It was the right move. The cooking, under the direction of chef de cuisine Josefine Santacruz, is inventive, modern and exuberant.

My first experience here was an odd one, however. For reasons too complicated to go into, I ended up as one of a group of five women, an anathema to any chic restaurant. After some confusion, we were led past a bar on the cave-like ground floor to a table in the corner, all the way in the back. It was hot, and the windows-which stretched from floor to ceiling-were covered with dark blinds. Hoping for some fresh air, I pulled one of them back and found myself staring across the way into an empty office lobby dominated by an escalator.

It was not an auspicious beginning. If this had been the only dining room in the restaurant, I would not be writing this piece. But when I went upstairs to the bathroom, I discovered a completely different restaurant. It was like some glamorous place in Mexico City, with an airy, bustling dining room filled with great-looking people who appeared to be having a wonderful time. Most-but by no means all-of the tables were filled; the room had a creamy-yellow glow, with bas reliefs of palm trees and banana plants on the walls, giant mirrors reflecting the candles and lazy, undulating ceiling fans. And through a set of French doors, there was a terrace filled with candlelit tables and a metal fish sculpture rising up over the edge of the railing, as though it were coming out of the sea.

In the bathroom were two young women. One of them flopped down on a stool and said, “I’m exhausted! Absolutely exhausted. But then this P.R. broad calls up and says, ‘You’ve got to come to this restaurant-it’s dying!’”

I very much doubt that Pampano will die any time soon, although on my next visit (during which I sat upstairs) you could have taken a siesta between courses. But the food here is exceptional. The ceviches are outstanding (get the quartet for the table): My favorite was the tuna, which was mixed with a subtle blend of tomatillos, chile poblano, mango and purple onion. Salmon, mahi mahi and shrimp complete the foursome. And while the guacamole is ordinary, the smoked swordfish (chopped up with onion, tomato and cilantro) is a great dip for tortilla chips.

The seasoning of Pampano’s food is subtle but pervasive, warm and aromatic-not searingly hot. And although the chef gives Mexican standbys such as tamales and tacos a new twist, she never overreaches. The corn tamales, filled with shrimp, wild mushrooms and zucchini blossoms and served with a lobster sauce, are wonderful. Shrimp empanadas with grilled pineapple get a smoky taste from the chile-chipotle vinaigrette and a kick from a bell pepper relish. Fried calamari, tender under the crunchy coating of blue cornmeal, are served with a tamarind vinaigrette, which adds a pleasantly acidic note. A mahogany-colored ancho chile glaze coats the baby octopus, which is grilled and served with corn and crisp chips of chayote, a Mexican squash.

A whole fried red snapper arrives at the table in a light pepper sauce with a rakish grin on its face, showing a row of tiny saber-like teeth. A light pepper sauce compliments the delicacy of the fish, which comes with a cactus salad. The restaurant’s namesake fish, pampano, is served in piled-up fillets with banana in a rich adobo sauce with black rice and roasted garlic and chili guajillo sauce. I would come here just for this dish, even if it were served to me under the stairs.

On another night, one of my friends ordered seafood albóndigas, fish balls. “They are not gefilte fish, I assure you,” he said after a taste. They certainly are not. They’re made of diced shrimp and lobster and are served in a rich chile guajillo sauce, with truffle essence and shaved Manchego cheese (that adds a rococo touch). Large grilled shrimp were barbecued in their shells and accompanied by an Anaheim pepper stuffed with goat cheese, afloat on a spicy bell pepper tomato broth.

There are interesting tequilas and New World wines at reasonable prices. But the “special” margaritas-two dollars more than the ordinary ones-were nothing special; they were the way I’ve made them for years, with tequila and triple sec, and they were watery to boot.

The desserts live up to the rest of the meal. The lemon cake, served with both a raspberry sauce and a white chocolate sauce, is splendid. Pastelelote, a warm corncake served with a hibiscus sauce and coconut ice cream, is light and creamy, and the natilla de cajeta, a custard under a topping of browned sugar with caramelized bananas, is over the top.

“I had dinner at Pastis last night,” said one of my companions as he finished up his dessert in the upstairs dining room. “Next to us was a table of five women! Secretaries’ night out-it was awful.”

Stick them downstairs in the back with a view of an empty lobby dominated by an escalator.

That being said, I would almost sit there again for another taste of those tamales made with shrimp and zucchini blossoms, or the wonderful pampano. To many New Yorkers, Mexican cooking still means frozen margaritas, tacos and guacamole. Pampano’s food will come as a revelation.