I often wonder how many people dream of one day owning a restaurant with no prior culinary experience. Judging from shows like Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant Impossible, quite a few. Owning a restaurant can seem glamorous, and who doesn’t want to invite friends to “your place”. Perhaps then that is why financially successful people often try their hand at owning a restaurant: Justin Timberlake, Mariano Rivera, Darryl Strawberry, Britney Spears….. the list goes on.
What’s the common thread? Mediocrity. Relying on the name of the owner rather than the name of the chef simply isn’t a viable business plan for the long run. As a Jordan fan I visited his namesake steakhouse once, but will I go again for his name? Not really.
Why do I bring this up? Because Pampano is owned by world renown tenor Placido Domingo. The restaurant wasn’t always called Pampano. When the space first opened back in 1996, it was known as, you guessed it, Domingo. From what I read, the Domingo name was the only thing going for it.
In 2003, Domingo brought in good friend, and Mexican food specialist Richard Sandoval to re-launch his restaurant. What Sandoval did first was remove the restaurant’s last bit of glory, the Domingo name, and relaunched the restaurant as Pampano. Gone was the Spanish menu, replaced by coastal Mexican cuisine and lots of fish sculptures on the balcony.
The relaunch worked, and a 2 star New York Times review from Grimes followed. While the combination of Domingo and Sandoval wasn’t successful on the levels of Robert Deniro and Nobu Matsuhisa, the new business partners continued to partner on future restaurant endeavors. Zengo, other locations for Pampano, more Zengo’s.
The count for Chef Sandoval currently stands at 30 restaurants. I quite enjoyed my meal at DohYo, where Sandoval consults. So does he have enough time and passion to still take care of his older establishments?
Pampano recently launched a tasting menu with a sea to table theme. At $50, or $75 with drink pairing, it looks to be quite the deal.
Before the amuse arrives, the waiter delivers a heaping plate of corn chips with guacamole. Setting the tone for what’s to be a very tropical dinner.
The amuse was listed first on the menu, why not just call this the first course? The smoked clams with tequila sauce came in a nice serving size, and the smoky flavor really made it extremely memorable. Visually, it was also quite pleasing to look at. With such vibrate colors, you don’t need much plating complexity.
The first official course was called the tuna tamalito, though if it wasn’t for what’s written on the menu, I would not have guessed there was any tuna in either flavor or texture. The cornmeal simply overpowered all the other tastes. The serrano coleslaw also lacked the heat the famous pepper promised.
Bacon wrapped shrimp. You really can’t do this wrong, but it also can’t surprise with this.
The fish on the next dish was dorado, which we know by its more common name mahi-mahi. The tamarind sauce was a bit too sweet for my taste, and I wish the fish could be cooked just more tender.
For dessert, two “fried dumplings” with cheese filling, drizzled with caramel and a scoop of ice cream. A nice balance of taste and originality.
On a weeknight, the restaurant was packed. It seems the midtown crowd really enjoy Chef Sandoval’s take on modern Mexican. It was an enjoyable meal, though I was hoping for a bit more from one of Sandoval’s defining restaurants.
What does this rating mean?
From the notebook: Apologies for the progressively darkening photos, the meal started at dusk and ended into the night. The meal was compliments of the restaurant, though it did not affect my opinion, nor was I required to write about the experience.
Pampano New York (Make a Reservation)
209 E 49th St
New York, NY 10017