TROPICAL TASTES 

Taking it in at Aristi's.

Buoyed by the spring weather, we found ourselves daydreaming about tropical beaches and craving seafood. So we ventured downtown to Aristi's, located on Monroe Avenue in the former site of a Melting Pot restaurant.

Aristi's is an atmospheric and neighborhoody place. A small, street-front entrance serves as a gateway to a sunken, cozy bar, an elevated dining area, and, if the restaurant is busy, a downstairs dining room. A beautiful wood bar seats about 15 and doubles as the designated smoking area. The walls are painted brick-red, and Caribbean-inspired paintings and ironworks adorn the walls. The upstairs dining room seats 50 comfortably and has a back-wall booth.

On our two visits, the service was excellent. We were seated as soon as we arrived by a very pleasant hostess, then our waitress introduced herself and quickly took our drink order, giving us time to peruse the menu.

To kick things off on our first visit, we ordered the empanadas. The ravioli-sized pastries were made with a cornmeal crust and stuffed with a savory meat and potato filling. These empanadas were baked and came with a spicy fresh salsa of tomatoes, onion, peppers, and a hint of habanero -- a fine companion. The appetizer was tasty. So tasty, in fact, we ate them all, with only the empty dish covered with a greasy white napkin as evidence that the empanadas ever existed.

On our second visit, we tried the yuca and "Robert's BBQ Shrimp" as appetizers. The yuca, or cassava, is a long brown root similar to the potato and is native to South America. Aristi's version came deep-fried and served with a mojo/mole sauce, typically made with garlic, lard, olive oil, citrus, and onion. The pungent Creole garlic sauce was excellent and definitely great for sharing. The shrimp dish is the namesake of one of the owners and was perfectly grilled, then brushed with a spicy, fruit-enhanced barbecue sauce and served over basmati rice. This was my favorite appetizer.

We also ordered the "Cuban Veggie Salad" -- greens topped with grilled eggplant, red and green bell peppers, onion, zucchini, and basil. A Cuban mojo dressing accompanied the salad. The flavors of the salad blended extremely well with the dressing. It's sizable, though, so I suggest ordering the salad as an entrÇe or sharing it with a friend.

One entrÇe we ordered was the beef chimichurri. The two, four-ounce cuts of beef were cooked well-done when we'd asked for medium-well. But the chimichurri -- a ubiquitous condiment for grilled meat in Argentina -- was a mÇlange of pureed parsley, oregano, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, vinegar, and olive oil, and it added a nice twist. The sides for the steaks were garlic potatoes and a basic carrot and broccoli, mixed-vegetable dish.

The jerked scallops, unlike the steak, were undercooked and bathed in a floral and overpowering jerk sauce. They were a disappointment. I tried to cut the jerk seasoning with the rice side and vegetable medley, to no avail.

On our second trip, we ordered the red snapper with papaya chutney and the arroz con pollo. Two red snapper filets had been lightly breaded, sautÇed, and then smothered in sweet and spicy papaya chutney. The fish proved deliciously flaky yet firm. When the menu says they drench the fish in the chutney, they mean it. Large chunks of fruit, vinegar, sugar, and spices made for a delicious accompaniment, but a little could have gone a long way. The snapper came with saffron rice and sautÇed mixed vegetables. A fairly good dish overall, but I am not sure it commanded $23. There wasn't much chicken in the arroz con pollo, but it had a nice, fresh flavor.

Desserts vary nightly. On our first visit,the key lime pie tasted more like cheesecake. The bread pudding, however, was divine -- rich slices of warm cinnamon and egg-custard-soaked bread drizzled with a luscious sauce and pecans. Go for it. On our second visit, we had the flan, and it too was delicious. n

Aristi's, 126-128 Monroe (527-6930), is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and for dinner Monday through Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday from 4 to 11 p.m.; and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. Lunch prices range from $2 to $9.25 and dinner from $7.25 to $25.

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