Gypsy Magic

It's home cookingjust not the home you're thinking of.

Gitano chef Maritza Texeira is under tremendous pressure. She has her parents looking over her shoulder as she cooks. Given the wee proportions of the kitchen, it's lucky her parents are there only in spirit. The Puerto Rican restaurateurs have never been to Seattle, but when Texeira is cooking recipes they inspired, they might as well be right there with her peeling plantains and stewing white beans on the stove top. Though heavily influenced by the food she grew up with, Texeira's menu has a style all her own. Created last fall when the owners of Gypsy restyled their little Madison Valley eatery into Gitano, the dishes and ingredients are mined from her experiences with various Latin American and Caribbean cuisines, as well as her time at culinary school on the East Coast and as a former chef at Cactus. The menu's patchwork stylea little of this, a little of thatfits Gitano's name (it means "gypsy" in Spanish) and geoculinary focus: a culture drawn from a medley of native and conquering influences. Aside from Puerto Rico, the most apparent culinary influences on Gitano's menu are Cuba and Santo Domingo, the historically tumultuous island split between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Texeira's goal with the menu was to introduce Seattle diners to a new world of Latino food that was not Mexican, Spanish, Argentine, or Brazilian. Gitano doesn't look much different from other Madison Valley/Madison Park restaurants. It's small and dark with high ceilings. (Beware the acousticsquiet conversation can be a strain, but eavesdropping is a snap.) The colors are earthy but not without pan-Latin eclectic flair. Still, dinner at Gitano can be unsettling in a good way, like a rainy day during the southern Puerto Rico dry season. Rustic, spicy, and far from common in Northwest restaurants, Gitano's Caribbean flavors are like Pop Rocks to the virgin tongueshocking and unexpected, yet, on second thought, scrumptious, a hurricane of bold, unique tastes that doesn't waste any time. As soon as diners sit down, they're plied not with corn chips, a generic Latino tummy tickler in Seattle, but with a trio of salty-sweet plantain, yucca, and malanga chips and a moderately spicy salsa. Surprisingand delicious. The surprises go only uphill from there. An appetizer of Puerto Rican pasteles is a wondrously incongruous affair. Like a tamale of tropical root and green banana dough instead of corn, stuffed with stewed pork, raisins, and figs, the pastel ($5) is a sweet yet earthy treat. It's wrapped in banana leaves and would taste like dessert but for the accompanying chunky, roasted tomato and garlic salsa. The Salvadorian pupusa ($5), too, is both strange and wonderful to the untrained tongue. The cornmeal cake pocket is served warm, filled with white farmer's cheese and loroco. The edible, aromatic loroco flower is exotic on its own, but after a steady Seattle diet of fish 'n' chips and chowder, its pickled yet nutty flavor is arresting. A loroco salad ($7) is Texeira's own take on the traditional regional ingredients. With mixed greens, loroco flowers, shaved cucumber, and two white cheeses tossed in a pumpkin-seed-oil vinaigrette and garnished with more pumpkin seeds, the result's as pretty as it is light and tasty. Soups change daily. Recently, a baby-squash soup ($3 cup/$5 bowl) with pumpkin, zucchini, and chayote and sweetened with ripe plantains was thick and warmly satisfying. The little squash were fully cooked but firm enough to hold their shape. Texture seems as meaningful as flavor on Texeira's menu. Entr饳 are at once starchy and meat-heavy. The starchesnative regional staples such as yucca, banana, plantain, pumpkin, white beans, purple potatoes, malanga root, and baby squashare mashed, pureed, or otherwise prepared to complement slow-cooked meats. A whole trout ($15) is served battered and fried to a pleasing outer crisp with a tropical fruit chutney and a mound of chilled, almost pickled, lime-and-vinegar-marinated yucca. The crispy fish, silky on the inside, with the wet chutney and chalky yucca is a texture sensation. A lightly seared duck breast ($21) tastes delightfully rich and fatty. The accompanying grapefruit-ginger reduction recalls the Pop Rocks simileit's a burst of acidic sweetness that's almost overwhelming. But with the gritty Peruvian purple potato mashers and a side of ripe, fibrous plantains, the dish is a sensory experience not to be missed. Pork tenderloin ($16) is cold-smoked in back of the restaurant, finished on the grill, and served with a mildly tangy, chunky Caribbean salsa. The pork is moist with a deeply smoky flavor. I'm forbidden to tell you about Texeira's most exciting entr饠because it's off the menu for the summer (available again in autumn), but here are three words to tide you over: griddled coconut corncake. Follow any dish with a passion fruit flan ($5.95) and a traditional cocktail such as a Cuba libre or a Brazilian ca�r�a and your taste buds would rumba if they could. Mami and Papi would be proud. And Mami will be, Texeira hopes, when she visits Seattle for the first time this summer. kmillbauer@seattleweekly.com

 
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