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March 23, 2005
$25 AND UNDER
Dominican Pride, Right on the Tables
By DANA BOWEN
NTER It's a Dominican Thing, and you'll land yourself a spot at a table with that country's famed baseball players, political activists, artists and pop singers.
Well, not really. The celebrity images, snipped from magazines and torn from books, are collaged under glass atop the handful of tables filling the cozy dining room.
The decorations were a conversation starter; you're eating over somebody's inspired art project. On our first visit, as we lounged on pillow-strewn wicker chairs, the manager pushed aside my wine goblet and pointed to a picture of Julia Alvarez, the author of "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents."
You can get great Dominican food at dozens of restaurants and lunch counters from the Lower East Side to Washington Heights, but you would be hard pressed to find such outward national and culinary pride. The owners - Daija Arias, a former advertising executive, and Eva Martinez, the chef - ditched their day jobs last year to open this Dominican bistro, which they named after their common refrain when friends asked about the homey dishes the couple served at dinner parties. They enlisted relatives from Inwood to tend tables and collected family recipes to inform their menu.
One of Ms. Martinez's sisters, Ana, prepares the chin de todo ($12), a greatest-hits appetizer platter that should kick off any meal: codfish fritters, which strike the right balance between airy and meaty; fried cheese, sometimes salty but never oily; and plantain croquettes, which burst with chicken and spice.
Then there are the honey-blackened chicken wings; bite-size beef-filled pastelitos with fork crimped edges; boiled cassava; and kipes, an herby orb of ground beef and wheat, the gastronomic legacy of the island's Lebanese population, Ms. Arias said. To offer contrast in this cleanly fried feast, it is served with a mound of shredded cabbage lightly marinated in citrus, salt and pepper. And if that is not enough (it would have been), there are pork-filled plantain pasteles, the Dominican answer to tamales, steamed fragrant in banana leaves.
Another sister, Rafaele, is credited for her chicharrón de pollo ($12), whose fried-to-crackling skin gives way to tangy marinated meat.
The rest of the menu belongs to Ms. Martinez, most notably the salcocho stew ($11), rich with root vegetables and oxtail, and the fantastic lambi ($17), an olive-and-caper-studded sauce with shockingly tender conch. Stuffed cabbage ($15), another nod to the Middle East with allspice-seasoned meat stuffing, was a nice surprise, but carne frita ($15), on the night we ordered it, was flavorful but a challenge to chew.
I wish I had her recipe for mangu ($12), a mild mash of green plantains the consistency of porridge, faintly seasoned with onions and vinegar, ringed with fat-stuffed longaniza sausage and garlicky salchichón, a mealier-textured kin to kielbasa.
Some dishes - including a mug of chocolate oatmeal ($12 with a drink during brunch) and humdrum fried snapper ($18) - seemed pricey. And the assiduous service, double-checking of orders, the effortlessly switching between Spanish and English, almost compensates for the occasionally long waits.
The custardy bread pudding ($8) is worth waiting for (opt for the coconut-Grand Marnier sauce instead of sweet prune sauce). Far less fancy is majarete ($5), the traditional sweet corn purée, perfect with cinnamon-spiked coffee.
Despite the formal, tuliped oversized glasses, the wine list is casual and affordable, with South American choices hovering at about $30. More popular are the homemade drinks ($3 to $5), like sour tamarind; creamy papaya; or the classic morir soñando, which tastes like a liquefied orange Creamsicle.
At the busy weekend brunches, Ms. Martinez serves pernil sandwiches and slaw so good that my friends personally thanked her. The dish comes with fresh-squeezed mimosas or their philosophical flip side, salty-sweet Bloody Juans, made with Presidente beer, lime and Clamato juice.
Like most things about this place, it is a reminder of the Dominican Republic for those who know it, and an enticing education for everyone else.
It's a Dominican Thing
144 West 19th Street (Seventh Avenue), Chelsea; (212) 924-3344.
BEST DISHES Chin de todo; salcocho; mangu; chicharrón; all desserts.
PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $6 to $12; entrees, $12 to $18; sides, $4 to $7; desserts, $4 to $8.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
HOURS Tuesday through Thursday and on Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, dinner until midnight. Closed on Mondays.