"I like spicy..." one woman responded to the waitress's question of how the table would like their order of guacamole. Slowly, the other suited businesspersons agreed, and the lunch was somehow more at ease with the consensus for daring flavors. The welcoming casual atmosphere at Pampano (209 E. 49th St) uses tablecloths and goblets for water, melding fine dining and comfort into a perfect spot for a business casual lunch, dinner, or happy hour spot. The outdoor patio is sunlit for lunch and the indoor dining space features a sunroof that can be covered with white linen shades to shelter the intensity of the rays.
Celebrating their 10th anniversary, Pampano is not a secret spot, nor is it overrun. At noon we were one of three in the dining room, and a quick twenty minutes later the space was over half full. Menu items that keep Pampano as a Midtown staple restaurant include the popular lobster tacos, selection of ceviches, and miso marinated black cod. The bar menu includes an impressive selection of tequilas and some creative margaritas including a jalepeno infused tequila and passionfruit margarita, balancing the eye-watering spice with sweet and tangy fruit.
Pampano is the brainchild of chef/restaurateur Richard Sandoval and restaurateur/opera singer Placido Domingo. The menu is executed under executive chef Lucero Martinez who hails from Mexico City and infuses dishes with traditional Mexican flavors including tomatillo, tamarind, chile de Arbol, and a variety of peppers and spices. The tuna ceviche is marinated in a sweet cucumber ginger citrus broth that could be its own agua fresca. It is served with one large, thin slice of plantain chip that helps balance the spice from the few pieces of shaved serrano peppers on top of the tuna. One of many sharable appetizers, the grilled octopus is cooked to a texture more akin to chicken than a chewy octopus often found in Spanish tapas. It is dressed with a savory-sweet black olive caramel sauce to create a very unique amalgamation of flavors between the octopus, cactus, and queso fresco. The entrees are as enticing as the sharable appetizers with selections such as chile relleno de mariscos (roasted poblano pepper with mixed seafood) and pescado platija (fluke with truffle-boniato puree). And if somehow there is still room for desert, chef's warm corn cake with coconut ice cream and hibiscus sauce is a refreshing custard-like cake with tropical and traditional flavors. In addition to the current options, spring menu items are scheduled to roll out the first week in May.
In addition to the main dining space, Pampano has a ground floor bar and lounge called Botaniera (with a happy hour and traditional Mexican snacks called botana) and an underground taqueria located next door inside the Crystal Pavilion Food Court (open weekdays for lunch). Pampano serves lunch Monday-Friday 11:30am-2:30pm, Dinner Monday-Wednesday 5pm-10pm and Thursday-Saturday 5pm-10:30pm, and Brunch Sunday 11:30am-3 pm.