June 28, 2006

Main Course

A Hot Tamale In Wainscott

It began as the spicy sister counterpart of the popular French bistro Almond in Bridgehampton.

Now Almondito, a stylish Mexican/Spanish eatery, has come into its own as a dining spot with much to recommend it. A recent visit proved that Almondito successfully tags all the culinary bases. Service has perked up since last year and the restaurant's spectacular margaritas are still as tart and sweet (and strong!) as ever.

Almondito's décor is done in a kitschy retro style, a little spare but it suits the space perfectly. Rumor has it that the light fixtures were crafted from discarded metal wastebaskets!

Our group of four enjoyed the complimentary basket of homemade tortilla chips that came to the table minutes after we were seated. The warm crispy chips came sided with an excellent bowl of guacamole that was quickly consumed. Also perfect for dipping was chef John O'Connell's black bean mixture that was appropriately savory and spicy at the same time. For drinks, we enjoyed a round of house margaritas and tried a glass of robust Spanish red wine, a fantastic 2003 Finca Antigua Tempranillo. On to the starters: a good choice is Almondito's empanadas tasting in which you can sample all three varieties. Empanadas are small, sealed pastries that are filled with meat, seafood, and/or vegetables. We swooned over the Barbacoa pork, shrimp and crab and black bean empanadas. Another standout appetizer was the much-heralded striped bass ceviche that converted a fish-eschewer at our table. The tender chunks of bass were cured in a citrusy lime and chimichurri juice. The spectacular dish had us talking about it for days afterward. Other ceviches on the menu are scallops marinated in a yellow tomato-saffron coulis and shrimp "Acapulco."

Main plates, or Platos Principales, are equally good at Almondito. Particularly tasty was O'Connell's sugar cane-skewered grilled shrimp that came sided with a habanero citrus relish and hearts of palm salad. The huge shrimp were as tender as could be, while the caramelization from the sugar cane added a kick of sweet flavor. Also not to be missed is the organic salmon entrée. The fish was rubbed with spicy achiote and served with a refried bean quesadilla. Yum! The dish of skirt steak asada is also quite good. The steak was bathed in chile-spiked butter and was accompanied by fresh cheese and a yucca cake. Of course, no Mexican restaurant worth its salt (margarita salt, that is) would neglect that old south-of-the-border standby, tacos. Yup, Almondito has them and you can choose from steak, fish or chicken taco fillings that are wrapped in soft flour tortillas and sided with green rice. The fiery chicken enchiladas also won our hearts.

Almondito's wine list, happily, boasts some good choices from the East End like Channing Daughters' Scuttlehole Chardonnay and Lieb's Pinot Blanc. Also on the list were some very interesting and hearty Spanish red wines. The restaurant's icy and refreshing sangria was another beverage option that we tried.

A tip: don't neglect the desserts! The freshly fried bunuelos, which resembled light-as-air doughnuts, were dusted with a cinnamon-sugar concoction and served with warm dulce de leche (caramel) for dipping. We also sampled the restaurant's key lime cheesecake. Granted, it's not really a dessert of South American origin but was very good nonetheless.

Owner Eric Lemonides definitely has a winner on his hands with this place. Viva Almondito!

Almondito, 290 Montauk Highway, Wainscott

Reservations accepted up to a week in advance 329-6700.

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