FIT FOR A KING: The Black Palm's Arepa Royal.
A slinky black velvet gown. A Steinway grand. And a ... 70ish vamp who thinks she's Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys
. Unforgettable, and for all the wrong reasons. Very few, it seems, can shimmy atop a piano with success.
So, it's no surprise that my intro to 1700 Park St. N. — back when it housed Max & Sam's piano bar — sticks with me. Well, I'm so very happy to report that it's now memorable for all the right reasons. The Black Palm has arrived.
Kathy and Lui Arango's wonderful tapas purveyor has moved from Pass-a-Grille to this snazzy Jungle Prada space and restored the 1924 nightclub to its former glory. Period details have been uncovered for all to see and a splendid bar has been nestled into the decorative arches and columns. Just the architecture is a joy; the place reeks of history. Was it really Al Capone's secret Prohibition hangout? Are the ghosts of Duke Ellington and Count Basie still swinging within its walls? One thing is for sure: The current tenant is cooking on all burners.
Tapas is a festive night out. Small plates for sharing are now all the rage, but they began with Spanish cuisine. It's wonderful to start with a great cocktail (I chose the refreshing cucumber mojito) and just nibble to your heart's content. Black Palm's offerings are mostly traditional, but uniformly well done.
The arepa royal begins with fresh corn griddlecakes that have marvelous texture to contrast the soft, luscious smoked salmon, topped with queso fresco. Add a touch of tart sour cream, salty caviar and the bite of a few minced chives and you're got a harmonious mouthful.
The chilled gazpacho duo is a marvelous glass of puréed veggie soup that's as delicious as it is visually delightful. The soups are poured simultaneously so that one half is a pale yellow green and the other a light orange. But the flavors sing of tomatoes, and peppers, and cucumbers, and garlic, and fruity olive oil.
Ricanachos are fried banana tostones topped with the ubiquitous black beans, shredded juicy braised brisket and/or chicken, a dollop of lemon-herbal tomatillo sauce and a sprinkling of cheese. The bite as a whole brings in sweetness from the tostone and a splendid balance of flavors.
The mini beef skewer pinchos are perfectly grilled and topped with a colorful chimichurri sauce that adds zing. Thick yucca fries are crispy with a creamy center; the salsa Americana that accompanies them is a mild ketchup-mayo blend.
The picada is a larger serving that combines the aforementioned corny arepa and fried tostones with two wonderful products, pork belly and spicy chorizo. Add a zesty sprinkling of habanero-lime salt and you'll just want more.
Plantains are a staple of this cuisine. When they are super ripe, they get a quick slice and fry and become maduros. The transformation brings out all the goodness; they're soft, luscious and sweet. Top them with just a drizzle of sour cream to add a tart accent and you'll see why they endure.
The inside of Black Palm.
Should you wish to skip the tapas, you're in safe hands with the entrees as well.
The super corvina filet is simply grilled to enhance its mild, delicate flavor, and served with pleasantly chewy quinoa infused with coconut oil and tossed with sautéed shallots and zucchini ribbons. It's light and lovely.
On the meaty side of the entree menu, try the chuleta de cerdo. It's 10 thick-cut ounces of juicy boneless pork chop glazed with tamarind. The acidity helps tenderize the meat and adds a pleasant counterpoint to the mango-apple chutney spooned on top of the chop. Plus, you'll really enjoy the sofrito rice and crunchy red Caribbean slaw that completes the plate.
A fun way to end the evening is with the BP dessert combo. There's a dense flan (without much caramel), a moist tres leches cake with raspberry sauce and, the sweet star of the night, cheesecake with an almond butter crust, guava paste and a piping of guava cream on the top. If you like experiencing as many tastes as possible (as I do), the combo is a must. Otherwise, just get the guava cheesecake.
One other thing that BP has going for it every Wednesday through Saturday is live music. So often solo musicians are a trainwreck, especially when they start using technology to boost their sound. Not so at Black Palm.
They've engaged the brilliant Eddie Garrido, a singer, keyboard player and songwriter. I spent many years booking musicians, and usually avoided solo artists. However, when they get it right, it's a thing of joy. Eddie G., as he's called, does Latin-inflected covers with great skill. It's wonderful background music that only increases in stature if you take time to really listen.
Decor. Music. Tapas. Black Palm deserves your attention.