Nothing Wild About This Cat
Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar & Latam Grill is a mouthful of a moniker to pronounce, yet if the aim was for a definitive nomenclature, it should be called Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar, Latam Grill & Mexican Restaurant. Now all you need to know is that Latam stands for Latin American and you pretty much have the lowdown on this place.
It's a family affair, owner Eduardo Durazo partnering with brother-in-law Eduardo Del Rivero, nephew Oscar Del Rivero (the chef), and longtime family friend David Quintero, who created some of the artwork in the colorful and commodious 210-seat dining room. For all the familial connections, however, Jaguar appears awfully franchised -- as if the designers were trying to blueprint a Central American-themed Cheesecake Factory or maybe a tropical Houston's, judging by the way the bar barrels all the way up the left side of the space. The walls are splashed in rich, warm mustard and rust hues produced from natural Oaxacan flower pigments. Tiki lanterns and butterfly mobiles dangle from a lofty ceiling; paintings by artist Dionisio Ceballos, whose reproductions were showcased in Frida, adorn the walls. The front of the restaurant is mostly glass and opens onto Grand Avenue's outdoor seating area.
We began with a complimentary basket of assorted fried chips -- blue and yellow corn, and some sort of pitalike bread -- and a dish of extremely piquant chipotle-sparked chimichurri rojo. Then we were brought a basket with four rolls so rock-hard as to be impenetrable. At this point I thought to myself: Uh-oh.
Frothy ceviches whipped our spirits back up. The spoon bar represents a modest display of half a dozen offerings for $1.75 per small ceramic spoonful (which equates to about two little bites and sips -- or one big gulp). An ideal means of introducing yourself to the full spectrum of selections is to try a six-pack sampler containing one of each. Once you've determined your favorite, you can get what they call an "Amazon spoon," or what the rest of us might refer to as a regular portion.
Some waiters are well versed in the nuances of each ceviche, others clueless (but all cheerful and friendly). In either case, menu descriptions are accurately detailed. The favorites at our table: citrus-juiced tiger shrimp flecked with bits of avocado, jalapeño, and jicama, all sizzled with a hot drizzle of guajillo chili oil; minced swordfish bathed in spicy, bright yellow aji amarillo heightened with cumin, garlic, and vinegar; and Atlantic salmon with mustard and lemon sauce invigorated by fresh tarragon and chervil. Least successful was corvina in a traditional cilantro-lime juice base, the marinade overwhelmed by off-onion aroma.
There are no other appetizers besides ceviche, although you could ostensibly split an entrée salad such as tuna Peruvian-style (similar to niçoise, with potato, green beans, and hard-boiled egg); shrimp and mangoes with lemon, mint, and jalapeño vinaigrette; or the obligatory "Mexican" chopped salad with black beans and corn, served in those atrocious tortilla shells that inevitably taste as though they've been sitting on a shelf for a few weeks. A couple of smaller side salads are also available, like a little caesar composed of crisp romaine leaves and a well-balanced dressing -- but our serving was betrayed by croutons that tasted of old oil.
Another option for starting out would be to share one of Jaguar's Mexican main course plates. A quartet of empanadas seemed particularly apt as an appetizer for the four of us. The billowy golden brown pastries, filled with the Yucatecan slow-cooked pork dish cochinita pibil, were disappointingly dull and dry inside, although guacamole and the traditional cochinita accompaniment of pickled onions perked things up a bit. It was regrettable, however, that the waiter had misunderstood our request and brought the empanadas at the same time as our entrées. That some staff members here are seriously undertrained became more apparent as the meal progressed.
Other Mex selections satisfied in an unassuming manner. Four blue corn tortillas were wrapped around shredded, savorily seasoned chicken and then greasily pan-fried and halved so each of the eight resultant taco rolls looked like a short cigar. A duo of tamales, one with shrimp in guajillo and ancho chili adobo, another with pulled chicken in salsa verde, were neatly presented upon clean, cool corn husks; it didn't appear as though the masa and garnishes were steamed inside those husks, but both proved fairly flavorful.
The Latam grill's "Midwestern corn-fed USDA choice" steaks include four American cuts (rib eye, New York strip, T-bone, and tenderloin) in ten- or fourteen-ounce portions and Latin specialties (palomilla, falda, and churrasco) weighing between eight and twelve ounces. We tried the falda, a thick sirloin-shaped cut taken from the flank, cooked to a juicy-red medium-rare. Other char-grilled items include shrimp, chicken breasts, cheeseburgers, and a fourteen-ounce pork "porterhouse," which was imbued with smoke and spice but was tough and overcooked.
Eight types of chimichurri, salsa, and relish -- ranging from mild to yeow! -- are yours for the asking. The Chilean pebre, with habanero chili, garlic, cilantro, vinegar, and lime juice, falls in the midheat range and enhanced the steak nicely. House chimichurri is distinctively dominated by the taste of tarragon and likewise a worthy suitor for the beef -- béarnaise sauce without the hollandaise, so to speak.
Meats are plated with "shoestring potatoes, onion rings, and yuca fries," which amounts to a big pile of cold potato sticks, a few thin and flimsy rings, and two piddly, papery slices of yuca. I don't know why they bother with the labor; a bag of potato chips plunked onto the plate would be no less insulting. There is nary a vegetable in sight, nor are any available as side dishes, which are mostly composed of starches such as rice, beans, or a baked potato with sour cream, chorizo, and green onion.
Jaguar's compact wine list leans toward producers from South America and even encompasses a few bottles from Central America -- something you don't see very often. There's a wide array of beers from all over Latin America, and of course margaritas and other mixed drinks are on hand for the wild and crazy CocoWalk crowd; happy hour runs weekdays from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m.
A sparse selection of seafood entrées includes grilled salmon peppered with aji amarillo, yellowfin tuna crowned with pineapple salsa, and red snapper jarocho, "baked in a tomato sauce prepared with garlic, onions, capers, olives, jalapeños, and fresh herbs." In fact the fish wasn't baked in tomato sauce or anything else; the red skin was bone-dry, the white flesh bland, and a mound of tomato-based mush on the side was salty -- along with steamy white rice, which sure beats potato sticks. More bad timing by the waitstaff: I was still working on the snapper when dessert menus were handed out.
Flan "de queso," made with cream cheese, is more densely textured than flan "de huevos," but smooth and deftly offset with lightly bittered syrup. Warm carrot-tinged, Grand Marnier-splashed "tres leches bread pudding" pleased in a bread pudding rather than tres leches manner, though milky sauces atop the pudding and pooled on the plate probably accounted for at least two of the leches. Nothing wrong with the desserts, but nothing compelling about them either. Ditto Jaguar Ceviche Spoon Bar & Latam Grill (& Mexican restaurant).
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