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Monday, September 20, 1999

Quarter turn

Posted on Mon, Sep 20, 1999 at 4:00 AM

It's always twilight at Latin Quarter, thanks to fiber-optic stars in the ceiling -- just one of many of the glitzy applications that makes the enterprise suitable for Universal Studio's CityWalk. However grand, the Mayan-inspired design details come together in a way that looks more like the product of a consultant than multicultural inspiration.

Somehow when the bar is crowded, nearly every table is taken and the nightly Latin-dance shows are in high swing, the restaurant still has a vacant, rambling quality -- like a warehouse that's been installed with flashy scenery and props. It's noisy, too.

So why bother with the parking garage and 20-minute hike to get there? Because the grandness of the decorating is paralleled on the menu, which draws from and updates the cuisines of 21 countries, including Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Columbia, Cuba and Brazil, for what's being called "nuevo Latin." Fresh beef, game, seafood and fruits of Latin America are thrown together in untraditional ways.

A Caesar salad is topped with a pork tamale ($7.50). Fried plantains are layered with rich scoops of crabmeat and served haystack-style on a white-wine garlic-butter sauce ($8.95). A trio of grilled meats are skewered on kababs and dipped in sauces. Scallops are sweetened with mango glace, grilled chicken gets hot with guava mustard. Skirt steak takes on earthy tones with chimichurri sauce, an Argentinean blend of chopped herbs, parsley and olive oil ($8.95).

But not everything measured up to expectations. A pork entree that sounded tempting was overcooked. The pleasing flavors of red-wine sauce and roasted corn could not compensate for the toughness of the meat ($16.95). A better choice is the delicate red snapper broiled with cilantro-butter sauce ($19.25), topped with polka-dot slices of spicy chorizo. And almost anything on the menu goes well with the fabulous sweet-potato flan topped with pecans -- so light it's nearly a soufflé

Something not to be taken lightly are the nearly two dozen specialty drinks, including the Guatemalan rum runner, "la jungla" -- triple shots of sweet "Botran anejo" rum, blackberry and banana liqueurs ($5.95).

Dinner for two can easily reach $60-plus, so be sure to show your parking receipt to the waiters to get $6 deducted from the bill. And we almost didn't notice that a 17 percent gratuity was already figured into the total.

Service was so attentive that just glancing up from the table was enough to catch a waiter's attention. That's a good thing, because the restaurant was so noisy with music that we had to shout to be heard at our table. That's unfortunate, because it detracts attention from a menu that deserves to be center stage.

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