A midweek lunch at Cafe Atlantico has the tone of a Friday night on the town. Not that bass sounds and cigarette smoke roll through like warm fronts, or that people don’t tend to their fair share of business. It’s that the customers here burn their lunch hour with a visible glee, cajoling the waiter as he makes guacamole from scratch in a stone molcajete or flirting with workmates over plates of Jamaican jerk chicken and open day-planners.
If eating at Cafe Atlantico feels like recess without the jungle gym, blame the interior decorator, who spared no expense decking out the restaurant’s new space like a yuppie playpen. The brick building has been cut into four levels. There’s no dining on the second floor, just the kitchen and a small walkway that doubles as a balcony overlooking the bar and the multicolored benches in the street-level dining area. The top two floors are more intimate and secluded; a giant parrot hanging at eye level makes it feel as though we’re dining in a jungle tree fort. The place would make a great nightclub.
But here’s hoping Atlantico remains a restaurant—not only is the cellular-phone-and-cheesy-suit factor high enough already, but the food is exquisite. Like its interior, Atlantico’s cuisine is funky, touching on different Latin and Caribbean flavors not dish by dish but bite by bite.
Atlantico’s staff has obviously been instructed that the restaurant’s food is not just foreign to some customers but potentially strange: On several occasions, different waiters suggest we order something else, fearing that a particular dish, as one puts it, “you might find a little much.” But aside from the kidneys and sweetbreads, which come with the parrillada and probably won’t appeal to anyone who’s not down with organ meats, the warnings aren’t necessary.
Credit the sweet potatoes and a healthy amount of ginger for making Atlantico’s tuna ceviche the finest I’ve ever had. And it’s not even the best appetizer. In a three-way tie, that title goes to the empanadilla, basically a chorizo-stuffed empanada with some cilantro sauce for dipping, the hearty Mexican mushroom quesadilla, and the Dominican quipes, beef-and-wheat fritters served with a refreshing papaya salad. Like most of the food that comes out of Atlantico’s kitchen, these dishes are visually stunning; they appear to have been designed by an artist heavily dosed on psychedelics. Our waiter cautions us about the crepas de huitlacoche, but we wisely ignore him; the blue-cheese sauce covering these truffle-stuffed crepes is hardly pungent—just sublime.
Atlantico’s most impressive multicultural hybrids are the seafood entrees. There’s always a special fish of the day prepared Veracruz-style, cooked with jalapenos, capers, tomatoes, and onions, as well as olives galore—both whole and in a sumptuous paste. The banana peel covering the roasted salmon doesn’t have much effect on the dish’s taste, but an elegant saffron sauce does, and the plaintain puree that comes on the side is not to be missed. Asopao is a creamy Puerto Rican stew of shrimp and crab with a crisp and wonderful crab slaw scooped into the middle of it.
Atlantico’s entrees are bursting with lovingly rendered details, so don’t be surprised if you’re less taken with the actual quail in the tamal fingido than with the blend of plump mushrooms that fills its cavity or the lush puddle of creamed corn underneath. The portobello steak hugs a distinctive Mexican truffle, and the avocado mash plopped to its side is actually preferable to the fresh guac. If your meal doesn’t already come with quinoa, order some; brought to life by a Chilean red-wine sauce, it’s like a sunny, renegade strain of couscous.
Given that four of us on one night eat like starving linebackers, drink a bottle of wine, order after-dinner coffees, and still only pay around a hundred bucks total, I don’t much care that our waiter botches the wine presentation, drips some on our appetizers, and then later has to return to double-check our entree order. It strikes me as over the top, however, when a passing waitress spills coffee on me and doesn’t even stop to apologize, or laugh.
Even if rumors of an imminent price hike are true, Atlantico currently qualifies as a downtown bargain. And with food this good, the indifference is easy to swallow.
Cafe Atlantico, 405 8th St. NW. (202) 393-0812.
At the rear of Lotte Plaza, a warehouselike Asian grocery where you can buy fresh kim chee by the pound, is a cafeteria that serves some of the most authentic Asian cuisine outside the District. The restaurant gets its food straight from the store, which incidentally has a gigantic seafood counter, and the freshness shows. Some of the squid tentacles floating in the Jamp Pong’s spicy broth are as thin and long as the homemade noodles and cooked perfectly firm. Be sure to try the bean sauce at the condiment bar.
Lotte Plaza, 3250 Old Lee Hwy., Fairfax. (703) 352-1600.—Brett Anderson