An early taste of what's new on the restaurant scene
Earlier this week, a guy at the table beside us looked down at his bare plate, pointed at the last bits of rice mingling with some stray black beans, and seemed pretty satisfied with the situation.
"See? Isn't it just like being in Mexico?," he asked, beaming at his female companion and sipping an espresso.
Um, not exactly, but who's counting? We were at Orinoco in Brookline Village, the second and already-booming edition of the beloved Venezuelan restaurant in the South End. If our well-intentioned neighbor's geography was amiss, his appreciation of this new hot spot was at least heartfelt - and completely warranted.
Open a month now, the latest Orinoco has had a rather charmed life so far. With limited press and scant chatter on Chowhound, it's the little restaurant that doesn't have to promote itself, a fine example of what Boston needs more of: a place that exudes Friday-night verve with a menu that delights the palate and leaves the pocketbook intact.
It's not, however, terribly comfortable. It's small, though not as snug as the South End location, and owner Andres Branger and gang obviously want to accommodate as many people as possible. But that means the row of two-person tables along the far wall is too crowded, enough so that your server has to pull out the table for one person to sit down. Otherwise, you might end up at one of the booths along the other wall or at the long communal table in the center of the room, either of which is ideal.
Located in the former space of the Village Fish, sandwiched between Matt Murphy's and Pomodoro, it's essentially a carbon copy of the original Orinoco, with the same menu and same Venezuelan folk-art decor; even chef Carlos Rodríguez is at the helm. Unfortunately, it's also just as popular: You can expect a half-hour wait on an early weekday night or chill at the tiny bar for an hour and a half as we did this past Saturday. Worse, the restaurant doesn't take dinner reservations, only for lunch for parties of four or more.
There are still signs of growing pains, which are to be expected. The signature drinks, for starters, aren't yet up to snuff. On a first visit, a caipirinha is so bitter it sits untouched after a few swigs, and a pisco sour could use another spoonful of sugar (and the right glass). The wine list makes it easy for you with five good selections from Argentina and Chile.
But those are very small prices to pay for the overall experience at Orinoco. You want to be here for the convivial ambience (and the friendly and attractive waitstaff, if I may be so bold) and the spectacular food, a cornucopia of rich, hearty cuisine that's filling and often surprisingly light. (A vegetarian friend wasn't so impressed with her options, however.)
You should share dishes at Orinoco, starting with a few arepas, the rustic grilled corn sandwiches split and filled with various toppings. You can get them loaded with cheese, black beans, or shredded chicken or beef, and you can't go wrong with any of them. Just don't fill up on them - you'll need your appetite for even more appetizers: empanadas or maybe a salad of hearts of palm with bacon-wrapped dates.
For a main course, we try the tuna, which comes stacked in thin slices and heavily crusted with an adobo seasoning that, by the last bite, starts to overpower the subtlety of the fish. From the selection of daily specials, which general manager Rick Ryan says will start to change hopefully early next month, a rack of lamb is moist and plentiful. For more traditional fare, the pabellón criollo plate has it all: juicy shredded beef, thick black beans, fluffy white rice, and fried plantains. Hello, food coma!
Sadly, neither of the desserts, a flan and a molten chocolate cake, makes much of an impression. Instead, let's talk about the star entree: the polvorosa de pollo. A dainty mound of shredded chicken cooked in panela (sugarcane) and encased in flaky dough, it's the kind of dish that lingers in your memory, giving you major cravings at, say, the end of a long work day.
That's what happened to me earlier this week, and next thing I knew, a mere two days after my first visit, I was back at Orinoco's front door, ready for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. And . . .
Orinoco, 22 Harvard St., Brookline. 617-232-9505. orinocokitchen.com. Arepas: $4.75-$5.95. Salads: $7-$7.75. Entrees: $13-$19. Desserts: $4.25-$4.95.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.