When restaurateur Chris Hyndman burst onto the local scene with Virago in 2000, his Asian-fusion menu made headlines with its dazzling array of creative sushi and a particularly intriguing dish of honey-banana sea bass. Eight years later, Hyndman has done the same thing with Mexican- and Latin-inspired food that he did to Asian fare—housed it in an architectural showplace and made it the focus of a creative fine-dining menu. As if to underscore the flattering parallel between Virago and Hyndman’s newest venture, Lime, executive chef Clay Greenberg introduced—wait for it—the Latin version of banana sea bass.
To be precise, the scene-stealing sea bass—and stealing the scene at this überchic club-cum-restaurant is no mean feat—features plantains, the starchy, banana-shaped staple food of Central and South America. Plantains and other tropical ingredients (mangos, cactus and sugar cane among them) appear throughout Lime’s menu, which riffs on Latin and Spanish specialties from tacos and ceviche to paella and churrasco (grilled meat). Reflecting the diverse cultures and geographies across the continent, Lime’s menu borrows equally from the coastal vernacular of Baja and Chile and from the beef- and pork-based appetites of more inland areas.
More than any other flavors, lime and mint set the fresh tone in Hyndman’s hyper-designed, multilevel environment, which is adorned with exotic hardwoods, mosaic tile, glass brick, supple leather banquettes and glass garage doors that open onto patios. Vibrant wedges of lime adorn water glasses and margaritas, a subtle touch of color echoed by bright-green place mats and cocktail glasses filled with muddled mint and basil leaves. By one estimate, the bar goes through a pound of fresh mint every night to deliver the popular caipirinhas and mojitos, which arrive with swizzle sticks of fresh sugar cane recalling the dramatic light fixtures that look like globes of spun sugar.
With a massive central bar anchoring the layout, and walls of banquettes flanking on various levels, Lime puts plenty of emphasis on the cocktails. While it is not the first local restaurant to capitalize on the tequila trend, it stands out among other recent tequila traders. Our margaritas were excellent, with unmistakably fresh lime and lemon juices, simple syrup and Cointreau over addictively munchable ice. Sangria, served in stemless wine glasses, blended Malbec with blackberry brandy, black-grape purée and fresh berries for a richly layered version of the drink that all too often serves as a catchall for bad red wine. Had we had either ample budget or tolerance, we would have quite happily plowed through the menu of pricey cocktails, and we’ll look forward to a return trip to sample such combinations as the green tea mojito, the jalapeño caipirinha and the $12 margarita del Diablo (tequila with Grand Marnier, muddled strawberries and jalapeño, sour mix and a peppercorn rim).
But unlike so many Mexican restaurants that make good happy-hour hangouts because they have bottomless chips and salsa, Lime offers an outstanding dining experience. In fact, with six ceviches and 10 tapas selections, it’s worth skipping the salsas and quesos altogether in favor of elegant nibbles such as tuna tiradito (immodest tiles of buttery raw fish on crostini, with paper-thin slivers of toasted almond and crispy-fried garlic) or oyster fire ice (half-shells adorned with icy dollops of habañero-prickly pear sorbet and a citrus- and tequila-tinged version of the traditional mignonette).
We followed those starters with a $19 trio of pick-your-own tapas. The pupusa with braised beef short rib reminded us vaguely of a Hot Pocket made with a light homemade corn cake, stuffed with moist shredded beef and garnished with a smoky red salsa. The empanadas del Salvador, a melt-in-the-mouth pouch of pastry stuffed with white beans, chorizo and cheese, has since been reformulated with smoked chicken and goat cheese, but almost anything would be delicious in that flaky crust, which embodied everything that is good about a fresh doughnut minus the overbearing sweetness.
Another memorable starter was the tortilla soup, a rich broth loaded with roasted pulled chicken and squash, flavored with pumpkin seed oil and drizzled with a smoky mole poblano, which Greenberg makes from scratch in a five-hour process using five kinds of chiles, three kinds of nuts and seeds, unsweetened baker’s chocolate and about a dozen other ingredients.
Like sister restaurant Virago, Lime excels in seafood entrées. While vanilla-coconut chicken breast with black beans and rice did little to elevate the simple meal of grilled chicken, and the trio of salsas was delicious but not inventive, Greenberg and sous chef Tony Patton delivered artistic and intriguing treatments of extremely fresh fish. (The exception we encountered was the paella. Despite being generously studded with fresh seafood, the bowl of creamy rice lacked defining flavor or spice.)
The best-selling adobo tuna—seared sashimi-grade fish on a unique bed of warm posole (hominy), nopal (cactus), poblano peppers, onions and squash—arrived as a gorgeous pattern of purple-red tiles of fish alternated with pink triangles of watermelon, plated in a puddle of tequila-orange reduction. A light and beautiful combination, the meal showcased unusual regional ingredients with artistry that is becoming a trademark of Hyndman’s ventures.
Hyndman & Co. brought unusual attention to detail to the ambitious restaurant project, which seemed to take forever to passersby watching the transformation of the formerly unremarkable warehouse next to Mojo Grill. With custom-built round booths and elaborate detailing throughout, Lime reflects significant investment and great expectations. Patience in the details paid off—most noticeably on our first visit, which happened to be the same night the honey-plantain sea bass debuted. Greenberg delayed introducing the intricate plate for several weeks in order to perfect the process in the start-up kitchen. On the evening it was unveiled, the sea bass—gently pan-cooked, encrusted with Serrano ham, twice-fried plantains and nibs of fresh coconut, topped with banana-habañero salsa and plated dramatically on a banana leaf—was picture perfect. For better or for worse, the dish has already been replaced by a snapper with cashew-and-coconut crust, jicama and cucumber.
No wimpy list of fried ice cream and white cake masquerading as tres leches, pastry chef Samantha Lambert’s dessert menu boasts coconut gelato, tropical sorbet of the day and bananas fried in churro batter. We particularly enjoyed the flan baked with caramelized pineapple and served with a tuille cone filled with cool crema, or Mexican sour cream. But the pièce de résistance was a chocolate tres leches cake plated with a scoop of sour cream ice cream, a faint trace of caramel, pumpkin-seed brittle, and an emerald drizzle that left us with a lingering taste of fresh mint.
After two consistently excellent meals in the newly opened Lime, we’re looking forward to the summer months, when the garage doors rise and the sleek cocktail crowd pours onto the patios. But it’s worth noting that while our experiences were flawless, we have heard several complaints of inattentive or indifferent waitstaff. With pricey entrées as high as $44 and cocktails clocking in as steep as $13, it’s not unreasonable to insist on flawless service. When the fair-weather crowds storm Lime’s high-visibility patios and tequila bars, it will become even more challenging to deliver a top-quality experience to diners. Then again, Hyndman, who presides over the dining room with the sangfroid of Terry Benedict in Ocean’s Eleven, knows that better than anyone. He’s probably already got a plan—just as he probably already has a blueprint for an architecturally stunning restaurant serving a high-end interpretation of Mediterranean food. Or barbecue. Or Indian. Whatever cuisine he picks, we can’t wait to see his take.
Lime serves dinner Monday through Saturday starting at 6 p.m. Bar opens at 5 p.m.
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