2805 E Madison St (Madison Valley), 709-8324. Dinner Tues-Sat 5-10 pm, Sun-Mon 5-9 pm.
Maybe it's because I've been aching for summer lately, and Gitano's menu evokes twilight outdoor meals in balmy weather. Or maybe it's because I'm learning so many new flavors from one kitchen. It doesn't matter why: The point is, it's been a long time since I've been this excited about a restaurant.
Gitano is small and unpretentious; the bar is intimate and dimly lit. Busy noises can be heard from the kitchen--scraping pans, laughter, something sizzling in hot oil. The owner, Marco Casas-Beaux, is from Argentina; chef Marítza Texeíra is Puerto Rican. The food is inspired by the cuisines of Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Argentina, among others. Even the room itself, with its caramel floors and melon-pink walls, seems transplanted from a postcard. (Have a few house mojitos and stare at the slow-whirling ceiling fans against the pale blue ceiling, and you can almost see yourself in an old Havana ballroom.)
There's a lot going on in any single dish from Ms. Texeíra's menu: so many spices, sauces, textures, colors, and intricacies that you shouldn't be shy about asking questions. This is not everyday food.
My house salad ($6) enhanced plain mixed greens with grilled pineapple, green papaya, and a Caribbean vinaigrette, a tasty hint of pleasant surprises to come. Other salads contain similar quirky details--smoked avocado, pomegranate seeds, aji mirasol vinaigrette (made with mild, almost fruity chilis), pickled loroco flowers, smoked scallops, and roasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
Someone needs to have the Ecuadorian prawn ceviche ($7) and tell me how it is, since I'm allergic. But I should warn you: I'm a bitch about ceviche. I like it perfect--sashimi-grade raw fish "cooked" in a citrus bath, aided by onions and herbs, marinated for the proper amount of time. Too many kitchens allow delicate fish flesh to hang out too long in powerful lime/lemon juice solutions, or don't put enough sugary orange juice into the equation, resulting in overly astringent mouth-puckering fish that no longer tastes like the ocean. Gitano's ahi ceviche ($8) was guilty of overdoing it this way; while the tuna--tossed with a bright confetti of peppers, cilantro, garlic, and minced red onion--is impeccably fresh, I only got super-strong hits of lime on my tongue both times I ordered this.
Bacalaito ($6), golden salt cod fritters, are fried with a light hand, and the flaky fish itself is only slightly salted so as not to overshadow the accompanying "salsanade" (part salsa, part olive tapenade) and deep crimson strawberry-tequila reduction sauce. Bedroom walls should be painted the color of this sublime sauce. Pan-seared diver scallops ($9) arrive submerged in an addictive tomatoey tamarind sauce with silky-sweet caramelized Peruvian onions. Next time I'll dunk soft cornmeal pupusas ($5), filled with traces of queso blanco, into that lovely tamarind sauce.
I love Texeíra's thoughtful entrée options because of her avoidance of cliché, of the safe "easy sell": There is no Pacific Northwest Whatever River salmon dolled up with Latin American ingredients on this menu, only delicious crispy whole trout ($16) with fruit chutney and yucca escabeche (hooray for summer food!), the mild, starchy yucca acting as a perfect partner for flavorful trout.
If you just want chicken ($15), you're getting it with Argentinean chimichurri sauce. And sure, it seems obvious to sell a steak with potatoes--it's what's expected. But here you get creamy mashed malanga root with your red meat ($24), and the only mashed potatoes in sight are vivid Peruvian purples, served with plantains and grapefruit-ginger duck breast ($22).
Smoked pork tenderloin ($18), heavily smoky and grilled expertly to seal in juices, comes with a voluptuous criollo sauce (an almost stewlike blend of tomato concassé with spices and chilis, cloves of nutty roasted garlic, bacon, meat stock, sherry vinegar, and cayenne pepper), grilled corn and baby calabaza squash, and traditional Puerto Rican arroz con gandules--honest Boricua-style rice 'n' beans with smaller, more delicate pigeon peas.
Dessert doesn't have to be complicated. I recommend the homemade flan, simple and impossibly smooth ($6); mine was dotted with pink flower petals. Have it with a cup of coffee, and drink it like the Cubans do--strong, dark, and sweet.