Back in January, Claira Calderone, Accounts & Promotions Manager for Kinki and Mambo restaurants, invited The Waffle to come out and sample some of the new items being offered to customers in 2012. I’ve been to Kinki a few times, but I’ve always walked by Mambo, noting the loud latino music that could be heard from the street, with people dancing towards the back of the place. Not my scene, I thought.
Nevertheless, I was quite happy to accept the invitation, and a few weeks later, Mrs. Waffle and I were able to go and we met up with Claira at Mambo.
Mambo opened in the Spring of 2007, taking the spot occupied in the By Ward market by Meditheo. A little brother to Kinki, which is also owned by Marisol Somes and Zadek Ramowski, Mambo is quite different, yet has some similarities.
For instance, both restaurants are meant to be sexy. Mambo’s decor is an interesting combination of exposed brick walls and bold, vibrant, warm colors. The lighting can create either a warm and intimate atmosphere or a callende party place. At the very back of the restaurant is a very colourful, inviting bar.
There is private room on the lower level, perfect for bigger events. Mambo also has a rooftop patio which is a rarity in Ottawa and is likely worth checking out, if only to have a new perspective on the Market fauna. Even though it offers a full lunch, dinner and brunch menu, the most popular items on the menu are the tapas. You can enjoy them with a glass of Sangria, Mojito or Margarita and during Happy Hour, you get double portion Tapas for a reduced price.
But we were here for dinner. Chef Pablo Robaina joined us at our table and sat down to talk about his food, his inspiration and the path that lead him to Mambo. Quite at ease, he generously shared his story with us and we had a great conversation as he discussed his vision of Latin Food – which is not your ordinary beans and rice Tex-Mex! Born in Venezuela, Robaina got his passion for food from his grandmother, who raised him. He was clasically trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Mexico before moving to Ottawa, where he notably worked at Amate, the now defunct little Mexican restaurant in Westboro.
A bowl of freshly made popcorn was brought to our table for us to munch on while chatting with our hosts. Seasoned with a spicy-lime salt, it is a fun snack, and different than the usual bread-filling basket most restaurants bring first. Mrs. Waffle couldn’t stop herself from indulging.
Mambo is calling itself a nuevo latino restaurant, giving Chef Robaina the liberty of creating dishes with a large spectrum of influence, from South America to Mexico, from Spain to even Portugal, and perhaps even their overseas colonies. But don’t talk to Chef Robaina about fusion cuisine: “Fusion is confusion,” he stated when I asked him about it. “I am using Latin influence from all over the world to create modern dishes.”
Chef Robaina created a specialty meal for us to try out, showcasing new items from their 2012 menu. A couple of appetizers to share, followed by a different entrée for each of us. We were happy to oblige.
First up were the Camarones al Ajillo ($14), or garlic shrimp, a classic Mexican dish often served as an appetizer, and also very popular in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries.
Here, the shrimp are served in a zesty sauce, made with garlic, paprika, parsley and guajillo pepper.
The guajillo, used regularly in Mexican cuisine, has an earthy flavour and will give some heat, somewhere between an anaheim and a jalapeño. It gave the sauce its deep, red colour. The shrimp were also garnished with a sprig of rosemary, more for the look than the flavour. On the side, a couple of lemon wedges and some naan bread.
The shrimp were of a nice calibre, meaty. They were well cooked, though one or two were a tad overdone. The sauce was quite zesty, not too spicy. It made the dish feel very fresh on the palate. No need to add more lemon, though, there was plenty of citrus flavour in there. The garlic does not have a very strong presence however, so if that is the dominant flavour you are looking for, you may may be disappointed. Mel on the other hand is always looking for a citrus punch, and seemed at one point to be contemplating eating the last of the sauce with a spoon.
The naan bread is an interesting choice to go along with this dish. It doesn’t add or remove anything from the shrimp, but it is made fresh and is nice to dip in the sauce once you run out of shrimp – which will happen fast if you do share the dish.
Next, the Verano Flat Bread ($12) was brought to us. Verano, as in Summer. Summer, as in Fresh Produce.
The dish looked fantastic, and had a great combination of ingredients. Pesto in lieu of pizza sauce, goat cheese, onions, jalapeños, cucumbers, tomatoes. To add even more summer to the dish: fresh strawberries, a great flash. To garnish, some slivers of roasted almonds and a balsamic reduction.
I have to admit that I enjoyed this dish quite a lot. Different, fresh, lots of different flavour and texture and levels. The strawberries, very present, worked beautifully with the balsamic flavour. Simple, yet complex. A great dish to share, or as a light meal.
Our main entrées arrived shortly after.
Mrs. Waffle was offered the Cordero Moro ($32), a Lamb Rack with a curry & cilantro lemon chickpeas, served with mash potatoes.
The Rack of Lamb is a generous 11 oz portion and was cooked to medium-rare perfectly, as requested by Mel. Most purists would argue that lamb should be served rare, but you can push it to a light medium-rare for those who grew up refusing to eat any meat that wasn’t well done.
The natural side dish for the lamb is Mash potatoes. Mambo’s version is classic, smooth and creamy.
But the really interesting choice made by Chef Robaina, obviously, was to smother the meat with this chickpeas curry stew. Curry is not exactly something you would expect in a Latin restaurant dish. But there was plenty of more classic Latin flavours from the cilantro and lemon to make sense. There was lots of lemon, in fact, which pleased Mel’s palate – acidity is her friend. Which is good, because Chef Robaina clearly enjoys using citrus, and does not limit himself to brighten his dish with it but makes it an integral part of the flavour combinations on the offer. Some would argue it is overpowering, I would say it is unexpected and refreshing.
There is a lot going on on this plate. The presentation is surprising, somewhat messy, but the flavours are different, bold, worthy of exploring.
Chef Robaina decided that a man of my stature should experience the jewel crown of his menu: El Matador ($34).
Fancy name, fancy dish: A 6 oz beef tenderloin, topped with tiger shrimp, scallops, mussels, covered with a chipotle hollandaise and served with garlic butter sautéed asparagus, corn on the cob and mash potatoes. And, of course, a wedge of lemon.
A surf and turf, you say? Well, no. It’s El Matador.
The platting was more classic, it looked very appetizing. The tenderloin was indeed tender, cooked perfectly to medium rare. The scallops melted in the mouth, of a nice caliber. The shrimp and the mussels were good too, melting in the mouth.
The hollandaise sauce was interesting, had a little kick to it, nothing to call the firefighters for though. Smooth, there was plenty of it but the shellfish weren’t swimming in it. The vegetables were sauteed well, but I would have liked more of them – they were crunchy and flavourful! Just looking at the picture, I want to have El Matador again.
Chef Roblaino came out again to thank us for coming and experiencing the Mambo menu. Desserts would be coming shortly, he said. We thanked him and pledged to come back.
Mrs. Waffle and I shared two plates – the Coconut Flan and the Dulce de Leche dessert, both served with a little cup of ice cream.
Both desserts were excellent. The flan was firm yet creamy, great coconut flavour. I love coconut. The Dulce de Leche cakes were oh, so decadent! Loads of cream, a dense yet light cake, it’s a good thing (actually, a very bad thing!) there were two pieces. The ice cream was a nice touch, but oh so not necessary considering the amount of food we had in front of us! Portions were big, and normally, we would have shared only one of the three pieces in front of us… But we convinced ourselves to indulge!
We had a great time at Mambo. The food was deliciously different, the service was efficient, friendly yet professional. We are quite thankful of having been the guests of Mambo Nuevo Latino. Big thanks especially to Promotions Manager Claira Calderone for the invitation and to Chef Pablo Robaina for being so generous with his time.
We shall go back.