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Review: Sur Real Latin American Cuisine

The paella dish is one of the specialties at Sur Real Latin American Cuisine

The paella dish is one of the specialties at Sur Real Latin American Cuisine

This December addition to the wealth of eateries along this stretch of Skyline Drive is a welcome one.

Though pricey (like everything else up here), Sur Real’s Latin American offerings are distinctive, entertaining and nicely presented. The response to this foothills newbie has been notably good. Weeknight reservations can be hard to come by, something you can’t say about too many places these days.

Not everything bowled us over at Sur Real, but for a place with a menu as far-reaching and industrious as this one, it impressed us with bright, evocative flavors, excellent service, and all in all a pleasant albeit somewhat surreal experience.

We started with the Hot Stones ($14), which featured a dozen delicate, little strips of raw tenderloin served with chimichurri and ranchera sauce, salsa verde, sea salt and a bullfrog-sized stone heated to 500 degrees with which to cook the diminutive slices. Sizzles sang out from the stone as we applied the strips, which cooked to medium rare in less than 30 seconds or so. The tenderloin was of excellent quality, and the sauces were all impressive. The pleasantly thick chimichurri had a potent sting of vinegar that was well-played with the smooth purée of parsley, garlic and oregano. The salsa verde had a refreshing, almost sticky quality that gave the steak a silky coating of sharp tomatillo and peppers. The ranchera sauce – our favorite of the three – was aggressively spiced yet mellowed by a pleasing depth of husky pepper flavor, the kind of payoff that the trinity of peppers give to a good mole. We could have done with a few more strips of tenderloin for the $14 price tag, but were impressed with the dish’s constituents and they way it was presented.

The Colombian Arepas ($9) were more than sweet enough to be on the dessert menu, but my companions and I were refreshed by having such a touch of sweetness for a starter. Three masa patties that looked like medium pancakes in diameter and thickness were filled and topped with Cotija cheese and sided by a slaw of cilantro, lime and cabbage, drizzles of sweet cream and strokes of Aji, a puréed Peruvian green sauce. The Arepas, already sweet with good masa, were pulled to the edge of dessert by the sweet cream sauce yet cleverly pulled back by the salty and pungent cotija and Aji. This is a fun starter everyone should try.

Intrigued by the comprehensive selection of Latin American specialty meats on the menu, we made a beeline for the Latin American Sampler ($25), which features 4 ounces each of four different offerings, your choice of side, a salad and tortillas.

We were most impressed with the least exotic of the meats – the Carne Asada – which was luxuriously lean, excellently seasoned in chile, onion, garlic and beer, and topped with a mild, puréed salsa. Almost as pleasing was the Carnitas, with the slow-roasted pork shredded to a near-Machaca featheriness and refreshingly essenced with a healthy amount of citrus.

The Alcatra, lean slices of strip loin marinated in garlic and herbs, were almost blue around the marinated edges, nicely pink in the center and served similar to rare roast beef in temperature and thickness. The Alcatra went well with the ramekins of the same trio of sauces we enjoyed with the Hot Stones, while the Asada and Carnitas needed no enhancing. The only downer was the Pollo Mojo, as the Cuban-style chicken was a little dry and not greatly imbued with the advertised garlic, pepper, oregano and sour orange. The side of black beans was supremely good, the beans soft but not mushy, steeped in a rich, smoky broth studded with ham, and topped with a generous amount of crumbled cotija.

Our other entree, the Plantain Crusted Snapper ($22), was a generous slab of snapper that was gently prepared and of good freshness. Rather than encrusted with plantains, the snapper was topped with five or six dime-sized pieces of Plantain chips and two or three tablespoons of coconut flakes. The snapper sat atop a bed of Dominican rice that, while adequately prepared, didn’t do a lot for us, though a moat of mango butter perked up the rice a bit and pleasantly accented the fish.

Desserts were a mixed bag. We loved the Tres Leches cake ($10), a thick, tall wedge that held up much better than the usual soppy versions, moistened with just the right amount of condensed milk. We were less than enamored with the Trio of Flans, as the coconut, almond and vanilla flans were no more than a couple inches in diameter and a half-inch tall, and weren’t all that flavorful.

While the service was first-rate and the plates, glasses and silverware tastefully modern, the rest of Sur Real is surreal, to put it mildly. It’s like those dreams where the conversation or situation remains the same but the room keeps morphing. The layout and decor of the place looks as if it was designed by a team from a reality show – the team that lost the challenge and had to vote one of its members off the show. There are several different themes going on, and though each works in its own little micro-environment, in the grand scenario they lead to a confusing morass of competing styles, colors and objects.

Stoic, off-white columns and wall tile give way to black carpet with splashes of blue, green and red, mauveish brown tables inlaid with black and white, red-cushioned wood chairs, and black banquettes punctuated with multicolored polka dots and lined with a chartreuse collar. Running along the tops of the veneered banquette panels is a 2-inch lateral strip of light that modulates from light blue to magenta. Recessed ceilings are lined with angled, backlit photos of tropical plants, while several overhead flat panels play the same loop – a pilot’s view of a jet cruising through clouds.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Strike that, as there’s no way you can get an accurate picture of this without taking it all in for yourself. The motif we actually preferred was in the hallway to the restrooms and the restrooms themselves, an understated scheme of ornately stylish sconces, mosaic floors and controlled hues with clean lines. There was also a stately looking chef’s table at the west end, a bastion of refinement in the otherwise raucous festival of anything goes.

All this at a place that already has all the visual drama an eatery could ever ask for out the windows that run the length of the restaurant – a terrific, second-floor view that stretches from the Tucsons to the Rincons.

Sur Real is nothing if not stimulating, and though we were a little overwhelmed with the layout and decor, the food more than made up for the visual clutter. It’s nicely conceived, well-prepared, and offers a refreshing range of pleasing tastes and textures.

Though the decor of the dining room at Sur Real Latin American Cuisine is wanting, the view from the second-floor room is not - windows look out over three mountain ranges.

Though the decor of the dining room at Sur Real Latin American Cuisine is wanting, the view from the second-floor room is not - windows look out over three mountain ranges.



Address and phone: 3001 E. Skyline Drive, 529-2644

Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.

Prices: Appetizers $8-$14; soups and salads $8-$13; entrees $14-$28; desserts $8-$12.

Bar: Full

Vegetarian options: Colombian Arepas ($9), Calabacitas, roasted corn, spinach and pico de gallo tacos ($12), Nachos with Oaxaca and Queso Menonita with pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole and house salsa ($12)

Desserts: Flourless Chocolate-Cinnamon Torte ($9), Trio of Flans ($9), Passion Fruit and Mango Mousse ($9), Spanish Artisanal Cheeses ($12), Tres Leches Cake ($10), Mexican-style Ice Cream ($8), Churro Sundae ($10).

Latest health inspection: Passed opening inspection in December.

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