- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

Step down into Agua Ardiente, the new Latin American restaurant on 24th Street NW in Washington’s West End, and you’re enveloped at once in deep, dark reds and gold. It’s like stepping into a Renaissance jewel box, or a box of chocolates.

Red silk curtains separate the smaller dining room from the bright hallway of the office building that houses the restaurant; the walls are a deep yellow; the comfortable upholstered armchairs and sofas in the lounge area are blue and yellow. The decorations on the walls range from a metal replica of the Virgin of Guadeloupe to colonial paintings, small spirit masks and receptacles for holy water. It’s an interesting mixture of the religious and profane.

Latin rhythms in the background create an atmosphere of good fun, and the gleaming dark wooden paneling and angled roof beams lend an ambience of warmth and conviviality.

Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld, a hands-on owner, comes from Equador, and he has named his new restaurant after a powerful Latin American anisette drink; you can order it by the glass ($5) or by the bottle ($75).

Executive chef Hector Guerra prepares a tapas-style menu, but portions are slightly larger and tend to South American rather than sophisticated Spanish cuisine. Although the menu is divided into appetizers, “little things,” grills, entree tapas and ceviches, everything is more or less the same size. This is food made for sharing.

Pork is particularly succulent and well-prepared. Masitas de cerdo consists of a corn cake, topped with small chunks of excellent roast pork mixed with a little fresh cheese. The cake is accompanied by a salad of julienned jicama. The combination of flavors with the added texture of the crunchy jicama is pleasing and stimulating to the palate.

The parrillada, or grilled pork, is first-rate. Thin slices of juicy pork roast, served atop a nice mixture of sauteed onions and peppers, come with a little dish of tomato-flavored cracked wheat, a taste somewhere between rice and kasha. The accompanying yogurt-and-cucumber dip is a perfect moistener for the meat.

The dip both soothes and burns, depending on whether a bit of hot pepper or cool cucumber hits the taste buds. The garbanzo-bean bread rounds that go with the parrilladas tend to be heavy, dry and tasteless. Perhaps they would be better warm, but as presented, they add little to the grills.

When served without the yogurt dip, as was the case at a recent dinner, the steak and the chicken parrilladas are quite dry, although the quality of the meat is good. If not the yogurt sauce, perhaps the chimichurri — that delicious Argentine sauce made with lots of garlic and parsley — would perform well.

Tortas are rounds made of pan-seared mashed potatoes; these cakes have less texture and flavor than the arepas (corn griddle cakes). The Andes is a nice combination of ground beef and raisins.

Empanadas are delicious. They’re about the same size as the corn and potato cakes, but made of crisp pastry. Both the chicken (the small chunks have the faintest cumin flavor) mixed with potatoes, olives, onions and peppers, and the beef, seasoned with bits of olive and raisins, are delicious.

Cositas ricas are “tasty little things.” The sauteed shrimp in a garlic-tomato sauce consists of five medium-size sizzling shrimp in a not very garlicky sauce. Considering the price ($10.50), it’s a meager portion. On the other hand, the Spanish sausage served with a warm lentil salad and fried plantains is first-rate. The sausage is neither mild nor spicy, with a subtle flavor; the garlicky lentil salad is one of Mr. Guerra’s outstanding preparations.

Other little things include corn patties, mushrooms, yuca fingers, green plantains and deep-fried calamari. Ceviches include not only the standard citrus-marinated fish (at Agua Ardiente, it’s halibut), but also mussels, shrimp and tuna as well as ceviches of avocado, mango and cucumber, and hearts of palm.

The vegetable ceviches resemble spicy salads, and the avocado, overflowing a martini glass and flavored with lime, lemon, tomato juice and onions, is refreshing and a fine accompaniment to the grilled meats and fish. Regular salads also are available, with or without chicken, shrimp and beef.

The tuna ceviche is like tuna tartare: diced raw tuna is marinated in a lemon vinaigrette and mixed with onions. It’s a large portion, and the tuna is fresh and appetizing with the undercurrent of the vinaigrette and onions. Like the avocado, it fills a martini glass.

Among the entree tapas, the ropa vieja is outstanding. The dish consists of Cuban-style moist shredded beef served with iceberg lettuce cups. Rolled in the crunchy lettuce, the slightly sweet, tender beef is a wonderfully rich delight. It’s one of the menu’s highlights.

Desserts, too, are exceptional. The wonderful house specialty, flan, is a small round, decorated with a plump mint leaf and a skinny cinnamon stick, bathed in a sea of golden-yellow light caramel. The flan is rich and creamy, and the dessert is a real delight, a dish somewhere between creme caramel and creme brulee.

Almost as good is the tres leches, the Latin version of bread pudding. In this case, it’s a banana bread in which a custard made of three types of milk and eggs has been incorporated. Topped with the crunch of a few nuts, it’s a first-class dessert. The other desserts are sorbet and a fine, rich, soufflelike warm chocolate cake.

The wine list, limited to a few bottles each of primarily South American reds and whites, consists of reasonably priced selections. Most of the wines can be ordered by the glass or by the bottle. And, of course, Latin drinks such as Brazilian caipirinas and Cuban mojitos are always available.

Service is pleasant, although sometimes the wait can be long. Agua Ardiente is a welcome addition to the West End, where dining options, as a rule, tend to classic French or Italian. It’s fun, the food is good, and you can eat as much or as little as you desire.

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